Kites Sail High by Ruth Heller
This is an excellent book which illustrates verbs for students. Don't be deceived! It looks like a children's book, but covers topics such as subjunctive mood, passive and active voice, and auxiliaries. Heller has a series covering parts of speech, each illustrated with beautiful colored pencil drawings. Elementary children would undoubtedly listen to these over and over while junior or senior high school students digest the intricacies of parts of speech in a candy-coated shell. Beyond the obvious instruction for verbs, you could also use this book to teach the difference between “vivid” verbs and the typical be verbs which fill student writing. After reading, have the students create their own list of vivid verbs and practice using them in sentences without be verbs. Another topic for discussion could be syntax. One page reads “Or it gives a command. March! This is a whole sentence in one single word, and of course this can only be done by a verb.” Why is a verb the only part of speech that can be a whole sentence? How else can we write besides using simple subject-verb with a period at the end? An easy way to introduce grammar is always a handy tool for the English teacher's belt, and this series is one of them.
John, Paul, George & Ben by Lane Smith
Lane Smith, of The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs fame, is great at humor and point of view. She doesn't talk down to children; her books read like she has an inside joke with them. John, Paul, George & Ben is a based-on-the-truth look into some of our founding fathers. It distills each man down to his essential quality and then goes back to when he was a child and shows how that trait set him apart. Each quality seemed to be a negative quality at first but fast-forward to the Revolutionary War, and each man's character plays a central role in the shaping of America. This book can obviously tie to history, becoming a cross-content review or introduction to a unit set in the late eighteenth century. It can also be used as key to unlock characterization. What are the major character traits of each man and how did those affect his life and those around him? After going through this short exercise, one could tackle a much more daunting work, like a novel or play. What are Willy Loman's and his two sons' essential qualities if you boil them down? What about Hamlet or Romeo? Why does Gatsby seem bound to a tragic end based on his character? Why stop there? Lead right into an essential question like “Do humans have a choice or does Fate determine their destiny?” The possibilities are endless.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This timeless classic has so many potential uses, and is loved by everyone who reads it. It is the story, “narrated” by a pilot who crashes in the deserts of Africa, of a little prince, visitor from another planet (Asteroid B-612), who is exploring the universe. He has a tidbit of wisdom from every encounter which he innocently shares by way of observation. He is always longing to return home, where a beautiful rose is waiting for him; a rose that cannot survive without him and to whom he is bound even though she is haughty and seems indifferent to his patient care. A few of the themes covered are: love, friendship, loyalty, childhood versus adulthood, and admirable character qualities like being hardworking and dedicated. In the secondary English classroom, a certain chapter could be read, such as when the little prince encounters a businessman who is obsessed with numbers, money and ownership, but who never gets up from his desk to enjoy anything he owns. The little prince is intrigued by this, which could be contrasted to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, who is disdainful toward adults and phonies. It could also be read as a whole, a little each day, just to instill a love of reading in students who do not habitually read. It is hard to imagine a person who would not be touched by this simple story, and it is short enough to read a small piece each day, or a larger chunk on Fridays, and finish in a quarter. So many sentences of Saint-Exupery's works have become well-known quotes about the deep themes of life, which could be discussed or used as journal prompts for reflection because they are universal.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Though most would cite The Giving Tree as their favorite Silverstein work, I am a lifelong fan of his poetry. I really believe most of them are about deeper themes than they appear to be. But, that could be reading too much into them. Silverstein is a master at poetry, a topic that is usually daunting and dry to students and adults alike. Read one of his poems a day to familiarize your students with the rhythm and lyricism of poetry, or just to add a bit of fun (who doesn't love “Sick” or “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out”?). Many could be used as a hook to a lesson. I am going to put “Invitation” on a poster on my door. It reads,
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer...
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Sparkle and Spin by Ann & Paul Rand
My exposure to Paul Rand came from my husband, who greatly admires Rand's work as a fellow graphic artist. This proves that art and design are not wasted on the youngest readers! Children often notice things that adults walk right by. We have grown accustomed to seeing the world a certain way, but children have an untrained eye and are keen observers. In Sparkle & Spin, Ann writes (and Paul illustrates) about the way that words are used and the magic in everyday language. It is written in rhythmic verse and “explores homophones, interjections, adjectives, verbs, and more” (I own this book and love it, but am using a review because our copy is packed away in our tiny apartment at the moment). (paul-rand.com) This is applicable to a unit on writing in the English classroom; forcing students to carefully choose the words they use in an essay. It would also be a good study in visual content, which is a section of required learning (7. Media in English III). Graphic design reveals the power of words not only through their lexical meaning but in the way they are presented, which is how advertisers and politicians (and used-car salesmen) target their audiences.
Goodnight, Goodnight by Eve Rice
This book is illustrated entirely in three colors: black, white and yellow. The yellow is only used for pools of light, since the story is set at night. The book is for very young readers, probably who cannot read on their own yet, and the story is a city going to sleep at night. But the twist is that Goodnight is not just the salutation that a toddler says before going to bed- it is the main character of the story. This becomes more apparent as the story progresses, and makes one wonder if the title is a salutation to the main character. The setting of the story is also a city. Over the rooftops of a cityscape the moon rises. A cat tiptoes along rooftops and hunts for food (not everyone sleeps at night!). A chestnut vendor closes down his cart and walks home. Goodnight peers into windows watching the townspeople wind down from the day's work. This book could be used to introduce and explain personification. It could also be used to explore setting. This book is set in the city and has a very urban series of events. What would saying goodnight look like in a rural town or in a suburb? How do you know you are in a city? What are the elements of setting that impact the story? Another idea is to explore the use of color, or simplicity, in the illustrations. With only three colors, the artist conveys more than with a spectrum. Sometimes simple things are more powerful.
Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky
This classic brothers Grimm fairy tale is retold and richly illustrated for children (Zelinsky also illustrated Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw and Ralph S. Mouse). The story goes like this: a beautiful young maiden is sold off to a king under the impression that she can spin straw into gold. Her own father was the one who told this tall tale to impress the king. Facing death, the girl is desperate. Suddenly, a tiny, strange-looking man appears and promised to get her out of her bind in return for jewelry. This continues three times, of course, the bargain escalating each time. The girl marries the king, has a child a year later and is on her way to a happy life when Rumpelstiltskin reappears and demands the child as the last promised payment for her deliverance. She begs, pleads and cries, and finally the man says if she can guess his name, the bet is off. She has three days. During the second night, she sends her maid out to find the man, and loyal servant that she is, she scours the countryside until she happens upon him dancing around a fire, preemptively rejoicing because no one knows his name is Rumpelstiltskin. Back she goes to her mistress, who guesses his name the next day and lives happily ever after! I would use this book for two things unrelated to fairy tales. First, the importance of minor characters in key moments of the plot. Take Shakespeare- it is usually a very minor (and often foolish) character who saves the day, or who unwittingly gets some major character in big trouble. There are no small parts, only small mistakes which lead to big outcomes. Secondly, I would explore pride. This maiden was sold off by her father who was just trying to impress his king. Then Rumpelstiltskin was foiled by his own pride- he had the deal sealed but could not wait to rejoice, thereby losing it all. How many great characters have had their downfall because of their own pride? And how many of us can relate?
Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness
Winner of the 1967 Caldecott Award for illustration, this is one of my favorite children's books. I first read it in third grade, and though it had been years since I last read it in a library, I found myself brought to tears once again. Sam, short for Samantha, is a lonely little girl in Maine whose mother is deceased and whose father is a fisherman. She has a cat named Bangs and a friend named Thomas who believes all her tall tales. Her father's admonitions to stop telling “moonshine” stories goes unheeded until one of her stories risks the lives of those dearest to her. Again, the theme of friendship is very strong, especially since the protagonist seems to take it for granted. Bangs also plays the role of being Sam's conscious by “talking” to Sam and asking her poignant questions. This is really Sam questioning herself, though she will not admit it. The book also deals with contentment. Sam is lonely but does not rejoice at the little friend who hangs on her every word (Daisy Buchanan, anyone?) and little Thomas, though surrounded by riches, just wants a friend. What happens when we do not take into account the consequences of our actions, and risk what we do have to get what we only might have? Is it worth it?
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott
This fable from Ghana is simplified and retold for American children. Anansi the spider is a great folk hero of the Ashanti people, a funloving rascal whose six sons have to rescue him from his adventures. In the story, he falls into trouble, but his sons rescue him by use of their namesake-quality: See Trouble knows Anansi is in peril, Road Builder gets them all there, River Drinker swallows a whole river to save Anansi from drowning.... all the way down the line to Cushion who lets dad plop onto his back. In gratefulness for their help, Anansi wants to give them a gift. He finds a great white orb and asks Nyame (the God of All Things) to hold it for him until he can decide which son to give it to. Nyame, wise being that he is, decides to put it in the sky to be shared by all the sons, and all creatures on the earth. This book would be a great way to expose students to world literature, in the context of a unit or throughout the year. It also deals with cultural questions of existence: where do we come from? What is most important in life? How was the earth created? Students could write their own short story or children's book about the origin of a natural event (like volcanoes, or spoken language) and share it with an elementary class in the city. If studying modern literature, it could be used to analyze what a hero is, or rather, an antihero. Modern literature tends to favor a flawed but still admirable protagonist over the swashbuckling Renaissance man of classic literature. Anansi has some good and bad qualities, but in the end is still the hero of the story. Why? What qualities are important in a hero? How do flaws help define and shape us and help us relate to others?
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Talk about a tear-jerker! This is one of the greatest children's books of all time! A stuffed rabbit is given to a small boy, who over the years loves the shine right out of his eyes. At first, the rabbit is ostricized for being old-fashioned and unimpressive compared to the tin soldiers and mechanical toys of the nursery. But a wise old rocking horse encourages the rabbit not to listen to their mockery. They will not last, and once a spring snaps, it will be off to the ribbish heap for them. A real toy knows what love is and knows its value comes from the child who owns it, not the praise of others. Many a child grew up thinking his toys were real because of this book. I know I did. This classic work has so many possibilities in the classroom with teens and adolescents. For one thing, the topic of value and worth could be discussed in groups and paired alongside a novel the class is reading. The theme of hardship or trial being the very things that make us who we are is another life lesson that Williams handles so well. The book could also be used to talk about comprehension despite a semi-unfamiliar and outdated setting. This book is British and was published in 1922. Many of the words are odd to the modern American ear but nevertheless understandable in context. This could be a lesson for something old and difficult such as “The Devil and Tom Walker,” written by Washington Irving in 1824. The story is readable when given a little help with vocabulary. This would be encouraging to students who have a difficult time reading, because they could summarize the story to a friend and see that it is not necessary to understand every word and detail to connect with the deeper meaning of the story.