Monday, March 2, 2015

2015 Geisel Winner: You Are (Not) Small

You are (Not) Small
2015 Geisel Award Winner
Written by Anna Kang; Illustrated by Christopher Weyant
Published by Two Lions, 2014
ISBN# 978-1477847725

Grades Pre-K - 3

Book Review

German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche famously wrote, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” while American film director Tim Burton stated, “One person's craziness is another person's reality.” These two meditations on perspective sit at the core of the fantastically and deceptively simple beginner reader picturebook, You Are (Not) Small, by husband-and-wife team Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant. This year’s Geisel Award winner begins with a declarative statement by one wooly ursine creature that another is small. The statement is refuted when that second creature points back at the first and counters, “I am not small. You are big.” So begins a debate that grows more spirited as the two creatures are joined and supported by others like them, all until--“BOOM!”--two new creatures arrive to force a change of perspective by all parties. Kang’s text is straightforward, as it should be for early readers, but there’s nothing at all elementary about the meaning behind it as questions about perspective and inequality lie just below the surface. Weyant’s ink and watercolor illustrations are as bold as the declarations and as charming as the story’s progression. Together, they comprise a delightful book that’s perfect for a multitude of instructional activities in the literacy classroom.

Teaching Invitations

Concepts of Print and Reader’s Theater. The fact that the text of the book contains only dialogue makes it ripe for reader’s theater activities. Kang does not always punctuate sentences conventionally, which makes determining what kind of sentence each is and how it should be read aloud a worthwhile exercise for students as they prepare their reader’s theater performance. Have your students practice reading the story aloud in small groups and then perform a reader’s theater version of it in different voices and with different intonation to hear all the ways it can be read aloud fluently.

Word Study. Through the text and images of the book, Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant explore the subtle differences in meaning among the words small and big. Over a period of time, ask your students to note / collect examples of the uses of these words in phrases and sentences. Record the examples so that you can look across the listing to try to develop generalizations around the use of these words.

Learning about Scale. Help students learn about scale by first asking them how they know something is big or small. Use a variety of images that can illustrate how knowing the scale of something, or knowing how to read a scale bar, helps to fully comprehend the true size of something. Some of these images might be a map of the solar system or a close-up and blown-up image of a square inch of a forest floor. Once they understand what scale is and how one reads a scale bar, arm them with iPads or other digital photography tools. Challenge them to take photographs that trick viewers about the scale of an object to present in class and have their classmates guess what the subject of the photo is. Don’t forget to remind them to take another photo of the same object that shows its real size and scale. You might want to share the picture book, A Closer Look (see below in Further Explorations), as well for examples of how students might do this.

Writing about Perspective and Scale. Much of the book’s cleverness and humor stem from the different perspectives each character has about size and scale. Provide students with a variety of different-sized objects. Have them describe the objects from the perspective of a creature that’s much smaller than it (e.g., a ladybug or a baby) and then from the perspective of a creature that’s much larger than it (e.g., a giraffe or a grown-up). After brainstorming descriptive phrases the creature might say or think, guide students to turn those phrases into a poem or a short story. Or take an object: how would it compare in size according to a variety of others ones? You might want to share some of the works on perspective and scale by acclaimed children’s author-illustrator Steve Jenkins, such as Actual Size and Big and Little (see below in Further Explorations).

Write the Sequel: You Are (Not) Hairy. Challenge students to write the next debate to occur between creatures, based on the final sentence of the book, "You are hairy." Guide them through a study of the dialogue that Kang uses, focusing on the kinds of sentences she writes and how in combination with Weyant’s artwork, the meaning of each sentence varies. Encourage them to work in small groups so that they may include illustrations and a reader’s theater performance of their sequel to share with the class.

The Theodore S. Geisel Award. Discuss the fact that You Are (Not) Small has received an award that, in name, honors the work of Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss. Compare You Are (Not) Small with one of Dr. Seuss’s beginning readers such as Hop on Pop. What is similar about the two books? What is different? What makes the books well suited for beginning readers? Expand this activity by gathering the other Geisel award winners and sharing the award criteria with your students. Distribute the books to small groups of students and ask them to discuss how in their view, the criteria apply to the winners. As a further extension of this activity, you might ask older students to use what they have learned about books for beginning readers to author their own beginning reader book. These books can be shared with primary grade students. Further discussion of Geisel award winners and honors books can be found in our Classroom Bookshelf entry for The Watermelon Seed, Up! Tall! and High!, Tales for Very Picky Eaters, and I Want My Hat Back.

Critical Literacy

Perspective and Power. As the book explores (and the Nietzsche and Burton quotes in the review assert), the notion of truth is very often a matter of perspective. But why, then, do some perspectives have more sway than others? Engage students in a discussion about issues of perspective and power by sharing books that tell familiar stories and pairing them with another that tells its counterstory, such as that of The Three Little Pigs and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka, and the story of Columbus’s “discovery” of America with Encounter, by Jane Yolen.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Anna Kang’s website

Christopher Weyant’s website

Geisel website

Map Scale Types – Geography for Kids


Jenkins, S. (1996). Big and little. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

---. (1996). Biggest, strongest, fastest. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

---. (1998). Hottest, coldest, highest, deepest. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

---. (2004). Actual size. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

---. (2005). Prehistoric actual size. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Klassen, J. (2011). I want by hat back. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

McCarthy, M. (2007). A closer look. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Miller, M. (1998). Big and little. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Long, E. (2012). Up, tall, and high! New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons.

Pizzoli, G. (2013). The watermelon seed. New York: Hyperion.

Schaefer, L. (2010. Just one bite: 11 animals and their bites at life size. Ill. by G. Waring. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Schneider, J. (2011). Tales for very picky eaters. New York: Clarion Books.

Shea, S. A. (2011). Do you know which ones will grow? Ill. by T. Slaughter. Blue Apple Books.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Newbery Medal Winner: The Crossover

The Crossover
2015 Newbery Medal Winner
2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner
Written by Kwame Alexander
Published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Grades 4-10

ISBN: 0544107713

Book Review
“See, when I play ball, I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire. The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.” Twelve-year-old Josh Bell is notorious on the basketball court for “agitating, combinating, and elevating his game,” but readers need not have a background or interest in basketball to be captivated by this electric, fast-paced novel in verse. Josh and his twin brother, Jordan, have “slammerific” shots, but it is their lives off the court that leave readers feverishly reading on as the story reaches a high-stakes climax for their family.  This year’s Newbery recipient will inspire adolescence and adults alike to reflect on the compelling storyline, masterful and lyrical use of language, and heartfelt message long after the last ball has swished through the hoop. Classroom applications are endless as The Crossover offers us a great gift to motivate readers and to mentor aspiring poets and mixmasters to write with voice and heart.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Grades 4-10

Crossover. The title of the book, a basketball term, is defined by Josh in one of his poems early in the book. Yet, throughout the story Josh and JB cross over metaphorical and physical boundaries as brothers. Track with students the multiple meanings the word “crossover” has throughout the novel supporting students to use text evidence to support their thinking. Next, have students consider the boundaries they crossover in their own lives. What are the ways they want to “crossover” that they haven’t explored yet in themselves? Consider why Kwame Alexander chose this term as his title. What can we learn as writers from this model of simplicity from both the book’s title and through the individual titles of the poems throughout the text?

Duet Model: Novels in Verse. . The choice to write the novel in verse rather than prose is intentional and, as such, integral to students’ understanding of The Crossover. 2014 was in many ways the year of the novel in verse. Support students in text clubs to read The Crossover, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, or Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil, two other novels in verse written in 2014. In what ways would these novels have been different if written in prose or consider what would be lost if they were not written in verse? Next, have students design oral and visual presentations for the class that explains the genre of the story (personal narrative or fiction), character profiles, turning points, and compelling messages for us to consider. Digital storytelling provides a powerful method for these presentations as students can weave image, text, and sound to demonstrate their interpretations of the text with audience in mind.

Exploring the Sounds, Structures, and Language of Poetry. As a poet, Josh uses the tools he has as a poet to make his meaning clear. Specifically, Josh uses the sounds, structures, and language of poetry to tell more of his story. Analyze with students the sounds of his poems including the use of rhyme and rhythm to mirror the feeling of a basketball being dribbled down court. In what ways do Josh’s poems remind readers of the sound of rap songs? What are Josh’s inspirations for the sounds of his poems from both basketball and from the hip hop artists he loves? Analyze the structures he uses and how he varies his use of them including white space, length of stanzas, line breaks, use of italics, bold words, and capitalization. Finally, support students to find language choices that grab their attention such as lines like “the unspoken words/ volcanic and heavy” or “the cats are balling”. How do his word choices pull us in as readers? What techniques does Josh use that we can use in our own writing of poetry?

Rules On and Off the Court. Throughout the book, we encounter ten basketball rules written as poems. While labeled Basketball Rules, they also serve as rules for life. Explore with students these ten poems naming some of the themes that emerge from these isolated rules including family, dedication, loyalty, loss, and redemption. Support students in partnerships or writing clubs to craft their own rules using basketball as a frame of reference or determining a reference of their own. Next, pair The Crossover with Game by Walter Dean Myers drawing comparisons between how both authors use basketball as a metaphor for the protagonists’ lives.

Markers of Identity. One of the first things we learn about Josh is his nickname, Filthy McNasty. Not a nickname of his own choosing, Josh goes back and forth embracing or rejecting the name given to him by his dad. Also early on in the story, we learn of Josh’s “locks” or dreadlocks as an important marker of identity and we experience his loss when JB cuts them off after a bet. Explore with students why Kwame Alexander would lead his story with these identity markers as a way of getting closer to Josh right from the beginning. Support students to share their own identity markers including the clothes, jewelry, and sneakers they wear, the names they use in peer crowds, and other markers that define who they are. Encourage students to notice the identity markers of other characters they are reading about in other books of their choosing.

Genre Mixing: Text, Letter, and Found Poetry.  Josh’s poems are about a range of topics including his own reflections on his performance on the court to explorations of his increasing anger and frustration over JB and his new girlfriend. Yet, Josh also explores other sites for poetry including texts from his mom, a letter he writes to JB, and articles from the local paper. Have students mine their own writing journals, emails, texts, and social media posts as potential sites for poetry. Have students writing letters to people in their own lives in poetic form. Encourage students to look for “found poetry” in newspapers and magazines by finding words, sentences, and topics that can be remixed into poems of their own.

Poetry as Performance: Slam-dunkin’ Poetry. Support students to select a poem of their choice from the book to practice reading or performing the poem using their voice and body to tell more of the story. View poetry slams from places like The Nuyorican Poets CafĂ© in New York City that now has recorded live performances. Also view performances of youth poets from the annual New York Knicks poetry slam cosponsored by UrbanWordNYC. Learn about groups like Louder than a Bomb which support afterschool and during school poetry clubs with annual performances. Now available through NetFlix, Louder than a Bomb, has a feature-length documentary film which spotlights the poetry lives of several Chicago adolescence involved in their poetry clubs. Finally, start of slam poetry club of your own as part of the official or unofficial curriculum at your school.  

Mirroring the Game as a Mentor Text. Kwame Alexander uses the traditional time periods of a basketball game to create sections for his novel: Warm Up, First Quarter, Second Quarter, Third Quarter, Fourth Quarter, and Overtime. Support students to synthesize what happens in each section of the novel drawing comparisons to how the events mirror the flow of a basketball game. Consider the other ways in which the book mirrors the feeling of a basketball game such as the lyrical language that feels like a basketball being dribbled or white space that serves to mirror the feeling of a ball being thrown through the air. Have students write their own texts using the structure of other events such as sporting events, theatrical performances, etc.

Critical Literacy and Social Justice, Grades 6-10

Literary Legacy. In an interview with the blogger and librarian, Mr. Shu, Kwame Alexander described his hope for The Crossover to serve as a “literacy lifeline” for coming of age readers. In what ways, does The Crossover serve as a literary legacy for boys, specifically boys of color who may have less access to compelling and powerful characters in the world of children’s literature? Pair The Crossover with articles by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers noticing the ways they describe the apartheid of children’s literature and the impact they hope their work has on readers. Support students to share their thoughts on the ways in which Kwame Alexander is changing the nature of the children’s literature game. How has he redefined the genre and inspired young people to see themselves as readers and writers whose lives and interests are worthy of great stories?

Definition Poetry: Crossing-over and Co-opting Words. As traditionally academic terms are introduced to the story, Josh co-opts these words and writes poems that define them his own way including poems titled crossover, calamity, patellatendinitis, ironic, pulchritudinous, and hypertension. Support students to be their own wordsmiths or Noah Webster’s selecting traditionally academic words and writing their own “definition poetry” using Josh’s poems as a mentor text.

Cultural References as Cultural Capital. Throughout the book, Kwame Alexander weaves in cultural references for readers to further investigate such as when Josh and JB’s coach uses The Art of War to inspire his team on and off the court or when Mr. Bell, Da Man, compares Josh’s basketball performance to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Research these references with students and consider the ways in which an understanding of cultural references serves as a form of capital or access to power and position. How do they view others who know cultural references to art, literature, and music? How do they think they will be viewed by others if they don’t have access to “cultural capital”?

Interrogating Markers of Class and Race. References to prison as a pipeline as well as reference to recruitment pamphlets in the Assistant Principal’s office for the Marines and the Air Force may stir connections for some students and disconnections for others. Read with students the PBS Fact Sheet on the School-to-Prison-Pipeline with particular attention given to the infographic. Read selections from The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and National Public Radio on the school “discipline gap”.  In what ways can we interrogate these references as markers of class and race? Do your students experience these messages in their own lives when considering the possibilities for their futures?  Support students to create their own life maps writing and drawing about the possibilities they want for their own futures.

Further Investigation
Online Resources
Kwame Alexander’s Site

Follow Kwame Alexander on Twitter and Facebook

Extended Book Trailer with Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander Riffs on Librarians and The Crossover

Mr. Shu Reads Interview with Kwame Alexander

Washington Post article

The Guardian article

Essence Magazine article

Los Angeles Times article

ESPN Video on The Crossover

Alexander, K. (2013). He said she said. New York, NY: Amistad Press.

Alexander, K. (2009). And then you know. Kingsport, TN: Word of Mouth Books.

Alexander, K. (2007). Crush: Love poems. Kingsport, TN: Word of Mouth Books.

Aronson, M. & Smith, C.R. (Ed). (2001). Pickup game: A full day at the court. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Myers, W.D. (2009). Game. New York, NY: HarperTeen.

Monday, February 16, 2015

2015 Caldecott Medal Winner: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat
Published by Little Brown and Company in 2014
ISBN: 978-0-316-19998-8

Grades PreK-8

Book Review

Surrounded by fellow imaginary creatures of infinite variety, he waits… and waits for his turn to be imagined into being by a “real child.” Losing patience with the process, he does the “unimaginable,” leaving his island place of origin to journey to the “real world.” The voyage is fraught with “scary things” and in contrast to the vividly fantastical landscape he has left behind, he finds “the real world… a strange place. No kids were eating cake. No one stopped to hear the music. And everyone needed naptime.” Continuing his search, he locates a playground filled with children (and some of his former island co-habitants), yet even here, his match eludes him. But wait! Just at his moment of deepest desolation, a child appears, a bespectacled girl, with a pencil behind her ear. Alice has in fact, both imagined and illustrated her future encounter with him, and she appropriately bestows his name: Beekle. “Neither of them had made a friend before,” but it doesn’t take them long to figure it out. In his third solo picture book, illustrator Dan Santat employs digitally rendered spreads to tell the story of the coming together of two special friends. Images from Alice’s notebook that represent her version of the encounter and following events, along with hand-lettered text throughout the book, raise questions as to who is the true narrator of this tale. Whether it is Santat, Alice, or Beekle, this story holds great promise for deep conversations about risk taking and persistence, journeys into the unknown, the power of friendships, and the transformative nature of the creative process.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations:

Grades PreK - 4

Portrait with Imaginary Friends. Examine the end papers of The Adventures of Beekle (you will need to obtain a hardcover copy of the book). They depict cameo images of children and their imaginary friends. Your students will notice that that the humans and imaginary friends are clearly connected. For example, a young boy depicted holding a kite is accompanied by a cloud, and a young girl wearing water wings has an oversized fish sporting a sailor’s cap next to her. Ask your students to create portraits of themselves with their own imaginary friends. How are their interests and talents reflected in the images? Create a display for all to enjoy.

How do we make a friend?  Children in the preschool and primary grades are working hard to connect with their peers (aren’t we all, really?). After reading The Adventures of Beekle, begin a conversation about strategies young children use to initiate an encounter with a potential friend. Record their ideas on chart paper. Invite them to consider other stories they may have read that feature newly forming friendships. Consider having students transform their ideas in to a class composed and illustrated Big Book describing “how to make a friend.”

A Celebration of Imagination. Read The Adventures of Beekle as part of a collection of picture books that celebrate the power of children’s imagination. (See our classroom bookshelf entry on The Nowhere Box for some title suggestions). Invite children to discuss the power of their imagination and to create a work of art (a picture, a poem, a story, a song) that pays tribute to the concept. If a more concrete invitation is needed, ask your students to consider the locations / conditions in which imagination flourishes in the books you have read together. Then ask them to name the places where they feel most free to create and to depict these places with words and illustration (or a photograph). With older students, connect the concepts of imaginations, creativity, and invention more concretely, investigating the conditions that support innovators in our world.  A visit to a local museum that celebrates invention in some form (science or history museum, children’s discovery center) may be the perfect launching point for this inquiry.

Duet Model: Comparing with a Classic. The Adventures of Beekle has some similar story elements to the Don Freeman’s classic picture book Corduroy. Invite children to compare these two stories, considering plot, setting, theme, characterization, and writing style. Compare the illustrations and their effects, too. Students can complete a graphic organizer (Venn diagram, for example) to record their findings.

Grades 2 - 8

Illustrator Study. Use the links in the Further Explorations section to learn more about Dan Santat. You will want to preview the links ahead of time to be able to focus on content that is appropriate for your students. Gather a collection of the books that Santat has both written and illustrated and illustrated. Examine Santat’s visual storytelling techniques. What patterns can students identify across his body of work? In an interview for, Santat encourages his readers to examine the whole book, including the dust jacket, cover, spine, and endpapers, because he attends to all of these details in his creative process.

Principles of Illustration. What makes a picture work? After reading Molly Bang’s book Picture This (see below), explore some of the principles of illustration with your class. As a class, model the application of these principles by dissecting the illustrations in The Adventures of Beekle. Ideally, you would examine the illustrations using a document camera to project the images. How did Santat create emotional impact through the use of color, line, page breaks, and perspective? Next, break students up into four groups; have two groups apply Bang’s principles to The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, a nonfiction picture book and Caldecott Honor book, and Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, a fictional picture book and Caldecott Honor book. How do the other illustrators also use some of Bang’s techniques, but to achieve illustrations with a very different mood and tone?

Grades 6 – 8

Waiting to be Found. Beekle’s wish to find his creative partner is poignant and palpable. Children in the intermediate and middle grades will likely empathize with this longing to be known. Invite your students to compose a poem in which they express some aspect of their identity that they want others to know. Post the poems along with “selfies” on a classroom bulletin board.

The Role of Imaginary Friends. After reading The Adventures of Beekle along with other children’s books that include imaginary friends (such as Jessica, Ted, Clara and Asha, Dory Fantasmagory), invite students to consider what research shows us about children who have imaginary friends. Then consider the potential benefits for creativity. In what ways is having an imaginary friend like having an internal dialogue? How is that quality/background a strength for writers who are trying to convey character's thoughts and ideas?  How do creativity and problem solving skills support innovation?

Books into Movies: Animating Beekle. In one interview about the book, Santat discusses DreamWorks studio’s interest in the book. Invite your students to imagine the transformation of book into movie. While some students may be interested in writing the script for a movie version, others may want to use digital tools to explore the animation of Beekle and his worlds.

Metaphor in Writing. The Adventures of Beekle is dedicated to Santat’s oldest son and Santat has described the book as a metaphor for awaiting the birth of a child. In an interview for Picturebooking Podcast, Santat talks about several other metaphors explored in the book:  (1) “What do you do with a blank piece of paper?”; (2) the power of creativity; (3) how two people, such as author and illustrator, come together to tell a story; and (4) if you are true to your own interests, you will connect with others who share these interests. Prior to identifying any of these metaphors, ask students to discuss their interpretation of the deeper meaning and themes in the story.  Ask them to use evidence from the text and illustrations to support and share their interpretation with classmates.

Digital Image Making. Recruit support to explore the process of digital image making with your students. Santat uses Adobe Photoshop and a scanner to capture colors and textures from the physical world. Find an artist in your community who uses digital techniques and invite him/her to visit the classroom or to Skype to discuss their creative process. If possible, allow students to experiment with digital image making themselves.

Online Resources

Author’s Website

KPCC Interview with Dan Santat

Picturebooking Podcast: Dan Santat

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (includes adult content)

Publisher’s Weekly Interview

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology


Bang, M. (2000). Picture this: How pictures work. New York: Seastar Books.

Barnett, M. (2014). Sam and Dave dig a hole. Ill. by J. Klassen. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Bryant, J. (2014). The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Ill. by M.Sweet. New York: Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers.

DiTerlizzi, T. (2001). Ted. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Freeman, D. (1968). Corduroy. New York: Viking.

Hanlon, A. (2014). Dory Fantasmagory. New York: Dial.

Henkes, K. (1989). Jessica. New York: Greenwillow.

Jeffers, O. (2005). Lost and found. New York: Philomel.

Rohmann, E. (2005). Clara and Asha. New York: Roaring Brook Press.