Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mr. Cornell's DREAM BOXES

Mr. Cornell’s DREAM BOXES
Written and Illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Published by Beach Lane Books

ISBN: 978-1-4424-9900-3

Grades 2-5

Book Review
“If you had lived on Utopia Parkway not so long ago, you might have walked past this house.” In that house, if you looked closely, as author-illustrator Jeannette Winter asks the reader to do, you would discover Joseph Cornell and his little “Wonderlands,” small, intricate worlds that he created and confined to shadow boxes made of wood and glass. But readers learn even more about Cornell than his famous boxes. They learn of his walks throughout New York City searching for treasures to fill his boxes, of the volumes of journals that he kept while lost in dreams and remembrances, how he cared for his brother, and how he loved cupcakes and sweets. Winter deftly introduces readers to the work of Joseph Cornell in a picture book that expertly uses only exactly as many words as are needed to spark interest in this quiet and interesting artist. Readers are brought into Cornell’s neighborhood and his imagination through Winter’s careful use of white space and color. The author’s note provides additional information about Cornell’s life and his personal connection with children, including his final exhibit, curated especially for them. Winter’s “tribute” to Cornell is more than that; it is an open invitation to children and adults everywhere to dream and create art. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Utopia? The book begins on Utopia Parkway, the street where Joseph Cornell lived for most of his life. Have students explore the word utopia. What does it mean? What are its origins? Why might such a name influence a person who lives his life “in” it? Why might Jeanette Winter have thought it important enough to start the book this way?

Illustrator Study. Have students explore Winter’s illustrations. What do they notice about the use of color and white space? Next, have students explore other books that she has written and illustrated. What are the ways in which this book stands out as an outlier? In other books, particularly The Librarian of Basra, September Roses, and The Watcher, how does she use background color to help shape her narrative? How has she used line to "box in" and "open up" her illustrations? Why might she have chosen not to use those design features in this book? 

Found Objects and Cornell Boxes. How can your students find beauty in the ordinary? Go for walks looking for treasures, as Joseph Cornell did. Fall is a particularly delightful time of year to hunt for natural treasures, whether you live in the city, suburbia, or out in the country. What can your students find in the area around your school building? What can students find in the recycling bins within the school (wash items out perhaps, before using them)? What objects can students find in “string drawers” and other places in their houses or apartments? Next, have students organize their found objects. In the book, these objects are labeled by type (birds, shells, pipes, balls). Do your students want to categorize them in a different way? By color? Function? Shape? Material? Next, have the students list adjectives to describe the objects. Have them describe what is beautiful about each simple object, on its own, and connected to its original function. Next, have students create their own unique Cornell boxes using their found objects. Be sure to have students name their boxes, and draw upon their adjectives and descriptive writing to create a “museum card” to go along with it. Be sure to exhibit these in the hallways or at some central place in your school, like the library. It would be a lovely tribute to Cornell to display the boxes lower to the ground, as he did in his last exhibit in 1972, so that young children can see in. If you have a preschool class in your school, share the exhibit at their height.

Memories and Cornell Boxes. Winter says that Cornell “saw mostly dreams and memories, and he filled his boxes with them. Mr. Cornell remembered watching the ball in penny arcades. He remembered Coney Island…” She also writes of things that scared Cornell, such as “the endless sky.” What memories are important to your students? Do an “I remember” activity with students in their writing journals, where they list times special moments in their lives, being mindful that not all special moments are always happy moments. Have students select one moment to write about in a personal narrative, and then use that personal narrative to create a Cornell Box. Or, do the reverse, and have students use the objects they find, bring in, or create for their Cornell Box become the building blocks of their personal narrative.

Journal Writing. Journal writing is an important part of the language arts curriculum. If your students find it difficult to regularly write in their writing journals, this book may be the inspiration they need to get over a period of "writer's block," as Cornell’s journal writing (which filled over 30,000 pages!) inspired his thoughts and ideas and fueled his artwork. If you want to initiate journal writing as a classroom routine, this book, and its connection to visual art, can serve as a catalyst. In particular, you can ask students to think about and ponder Cornell's memories. What was important to him? What memories important to them? 

Writers as Architects. We know that buildings are “structures” and they when they are built they are framed in ways that keep them sturdy. This holds true for writing as well. In this picture book, Winter uses Cornell’s house as an invitation into his life. For example, she first tells the reader that s/he might notice a light in the cellar window and a moving shadow. From there, she introduces Cornell and his art. Next, one might see him behind his house, in the backyard. Or, you might see him caring for his brother upstairs, or sitting at the kitchen table. Adopt this structure, that begins with a building, as a structure for writing about a loved one. Have students brainstorm people who are important parts of their lives. Next, have them draw a picture of that person doing things in different parts of his/her house or workplace. Together, as a class, identify the ways in which Winter works with Cornell’s house, and then have students adopt the structure to their own writing needs. Have students share their pictures and personal narratives with one another, and their loved ones.

Artist Biography Study. How do other artists express themselves? How did their art and their lives intertwine? Read this book along with other biographies of artists included in our entries on Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, David Drake, and GeorgiaO’Keefe. How does the illustrator portray the art of the subject? How do the illustrations compare to the originals? Why might there be differences? Students can then compose their own biography of an artist. 

Grades 3-5

Critical Literacy

Who Defines Art?  What is art? How do your students define art? Who else defines it? Does the definition matter? Does one need to be formally trained to be an artist? What does it mean when a formally trained artist starts doing something novel, as Joseph Cornell did, and make little “Wonderlands?” Drawing on the resources about Cornell included in the Further Explorations below, have your students examine how they define art. Have students explore Bonnie Christensen’s picture book biography of Andy Warhol, who Joseph Cornell greatly influenced.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Jeannette Winter’s Page at Simon & Shuster

Joseph Cornell Boxes

Joseph Cornell Exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts  
(This website links to an online interactive exploration of his boxes, including video.)

Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

Cornell Biography and Boxes from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

“Message in a Box,” PBS News Hour

PBS Video on Joseph Cornell 

Audio Story on Joseph Cornell on “All Things Considered” on NPR

Google Search of Joseph Cornell Box Images


Christensen, B. (2011). Fabulous! A portrait of Andy Warhol. New York: Henry Holt.  

Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers.

Winter, J. (2004). September roses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Winter, J. (2011). The watcher: Jane Goodall's life with the chimps. New York: Schwartz and Wade.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Snicker of Magic

A Snicker of Magic
Written by Natalie Lloyd
Published by Scholastic in 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-55279-7

Grades 3 – 8

Book Review

Twelve-year-old Felicity Pickle has a mama who is “cursed with a wandering heart;” as a result she’s a veteran at being the new girl. But when Mama’s heart leads her back to her childhood home in Midnight Gulch, Felicity and her little sister Frannie Jo hope that this move will be different. Midnight Gulch has a magical history and Felicity fits right in there with her own special talent of seeing words – words appear to her in the air and help her to know what others are thinking and feeling. A she describes it, “I see words everywhere, all around me, all the time.” Felicity weaves the words she plucks from the air into poetry that she is too shy to share with anyone other than her immediate family. In her debut novel for the intermediate and middle grades, Natalie Lloyd explores the themes of love, loss, home, community, and redemption through a cast of eccentric, yet appealing, characters. These include, to name just a few, a wheelchair bound classmate with a secret do-gooder identity, a love-lorn long-bearded school bus driver, and a hairdresser who also serves as the town’s auto mechanic.  Aided by her new friends and newly reunited family members, Felicity seeks to unravel the mysterious curse under which her family seems to be suffering, striving to “patch it, mend it, stitch it back together.”  Equally humorous and heart-tugging, this “splendiferous” novel will inspire readers to listen for wind-chime winds and look for snickers of magic all around.

Teaching Invitations: Ideas for Your Classroom

Home is…  At the end of the novel, Felicity asserts, “Home isn’t just a house or a city or a place; home is what happens when you’re brave enough to love people” (p. 302). After re-reading this quote aloud, ask students to do a quick write, jotting down ideas, thoughts, and responses, considering what home is/means to them. You might choose to have students expand this writing through further drafting, feedback, and revision. Alternatively, students could also offer a visual response, drawing or making a collage or mural of what home is/ means to them.

Teaching Literary Elements. A Snicker of Magic provides a wonderful opportunity to explore three literary elements: theme, setting, and characterization. Through discussion, students can examine these three elements and how they are interrelated in this well-developed novel. Students are like to identify theme statements related to home, community, family, connections, love, loss, redemption and change. After you have teased out these themes statements, write them as headers on chart paper. Divide the class up into small groups, assigning each group a statement to further explore. Ask students to record their thoughts on the chart about how the setting and characters reinforce / reflect the theme. Share thinking across groups inviting feedback and further ideas.

Favorite Words.  Felicity collects favorite words in her journal and crafts them into poems. Provide each of your students with 5-10 index cards and ask students to record their favorite words, writing one on each card. Have students label the cards on the reverse side with their initials and then pool the cards together. Read through the words and have students identify different ways that the words can be sorted or grouped. The words can be used for a spelling/phonics lesson if you group them by phonetic patterns or for a vocabulary lesson if the words are sorted semantically. The possibilities are endless. As an extension, divide up the words, distribute them to small groups and invite the groups to compose a found poem (see teaching suggestion above). You may also want to explore other books that feature protagonists who are word collectors, or linguaphiles, such as the fictional picture books: Max’s Words, The Word Collector, The Boy Who Loved Words, One Word Pearl, Donovan’s Word Jar and the Fancy Nancy series or the nonfiction picture book biographies Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.  

Found Poems. Introduce your students to the writing technique of creating a found poem. Begin with a shared writing activity, selecting a passage from the book, asking students to write interesting words from the passage on index cards, and then work cooperatively to craft a poem.Using a local newspaper, invite students to select an article that they feel captures the spirit of your community; students can work in teams to craft found poems from the chosen articles. Finally, invite your students to select a piece of text with which they will work to individually create a found poem. You might choose to use the technology tool called Word Mover provided by Read Write Think for this activity.

Literature Circles. A Snicker of Magic pairs well with two other books that focus on special talents, Savvy by Ingrid Law and A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff. Divide the class up intro three groups, each group reading one of these three novels, and provide time for students to read and discuss their book. When groups have finished reading the group, create an opportunity for groups to share the content and themes of their book with their classmates. This might lead to further explanation of the concept of ‘talents.’ Students could share their own special talents through an oral, written or dramatic presentation.

Finding a Snicker of Magic. Toward the end of the novel, Felicity speculates, “I bet there’s a snicker of magic on every street, in every building, every broken heart, every word of a story. Maybe it’s hidden away and you need to look harder for it. Or maybe the magic is right there, right in front of you, and all you have to do is believe” (p. 309).  Invite your students to consider the magical in the everyday. You might launch this conversation by considering the differences between the genres of magical realism and fantasy. In which category would they place A Snicker of Magic.  It might be interesting to add the discussion the idea that Felicity might have synesthesia (for more on this see our entry on The Noisy Paint Box). Ask students to think about what is magical to them in their everyday life. After having the opportunity to talk about it with classmates, students can be invited to write or draw their ideas.

Envisioning Characters. This novel is chock-full of intriguing characters, so many that students may have trouble keeping track of them all. As characters debut in the story, create a chart to keep track of the character’s name, unique characteristics, and relationships to other characters in the story. At the conclusion of the book, ask each student to select a character of interest to them. They should revisit the book, doing a close examination of the writing to determine the writing techniques Natalie Lloyd has employed to introduce and help us get to know the character. Students can create character portraits, drawing an image of the character and surrounding his/her with the words Felicity might see around him/her.  

Ice Cream Flavors. As students read/listen to A Snicker of Magic, they may naturally begin inventing their own unique and unusual ice cream flavors. Post a chart in the classroom on which students can record their creations. When the list is lengthy enough, have students create a descriptive advertisement poster for their flavor, including visual images. If time allows, you might want to actually make ice cream in the classroom, using an old-fashioned hand crank or newly automated ice-cream maker (ask parents if anyone has one to loan).

Mural of Your Town. Felicity’s mama finds healing power in the process of creating a mural that depicts the soul and character of Midnight Gulch. Collaborate with the art teacher at your school or an artist in your community to have your students produce a large-scale mural depicting your community. Begin by discussing significant landmarks and characteristics of your town/city. Extending this discussion, invite students to consider the soul and character of your community. What should be included in the mural? How can the community’s uniqueness be represented though this form of artistic expression?

Town Stories. Storytelling plays a strong role in A Snicker of Magic, weaving the texture and fabric of the community. Invite your students to explore stories connected with the history of your community. Identify key figures in your community and invite students to interview them, focusing on documenting the stories that shape your community’s history.

Critical Literacy:

The Power of Words. Invite your students to consider how Felicity’s words transformed her future. Ask students to discuss the power of language, thinking of a time when words influenced the direction that their life took. Consider the aesthetic power of poetry as a tool for advocacy. Invite children to identify an aspect of their life that they would like to change and have them explore this concept through poetry. Poems can be kept private or shared publicly.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Natalie Lloyd’s Website

Scholastic Teacher’s Guide

Finding the Message: Grasping Themes in Literature

Read Write Think: Creating a Found Poem

Read Write Think: Word Mover


Banks, K. (2008). Max’s words. Ill. by B. Kulikov. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Brown, M. (2011). Pablo Neruda: Poet of the people. Ill. by J. Paschkis. Boston: Henry Holt.

Bryant, J. (2014). The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Ill. by M. Sweet. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s.

DeGrosse, M. (1994). Donovan’s word jar. New York: Harper Collins.

Graff, L. (2013). A tangle of knots. New York: Philomel.

Groeneweg, N. (2013). One word Pearl. Ill. by H. Mitchell. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge.

Law, I. (2008). Savvy. New York: Dial.

Schotter, R. (2006). The boy who loved words. Ill. by G. Potter. New York: Schwartz and Wade.

Wimmer, S. (2011). The word collector. River Forest, IL: Legato Publishers Group / Cuento de Luz.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood

Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Published in 2014 by Albert Whitman & Company
Grades 2-8
ISBN: 978-0-8075-7650-2

Book Review
“Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill where life is sweet and the neighbors smile at all they greet. Where doctors and lawyers live next door to the owners of the corner store.” A rhythmic, rhyming read-aloud, Sugar Hill takes you on a stroll through one of New York City’s most historic neighborhoods. A master at precise language, Carole Boston Weatherford, invites readers to learn about a neighborhood rich in history. Home to African American artists, performers, lawyers, authors, and activists at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Sugar Hill continues to be a neighborhood of inspiration rich in diversity and cultural heritage. R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations boldly depict the people and streetscapes that have made Sugar Hill a significant landmark in New York’s history and will inspire students to notice details about life in New York nearly one hundred years ago. The author’s note includes further details about Sugar Hill and includes a Who’s Who of brief biographies of figures referenced throughout the book, including jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis; artists Aaron Douglas and Faith Ringgold; entertainers Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers; writer Zora Neale Hurston; civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois; and lawyer Thurgood Marshall. This book would be a welcome addition to a unit on biographies to introduce students to important figures in America’s cultural history or as part of a thematic study of neighborhoods, examining what and how neighborhoods change over time.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Grades 2-8

Neighborhood Study: Sugar Hill. Following a read-aloud of the book, catalogue with students the elements that Weatherford describes as the heart of Sugar Hill during the 1920s. Who are the people that made their mark there? What were the activities people engaged in? In what ways is Sugar Hill described through pictures and words as prideful? In what ways does the description of Sugar Hill support their understandings of Harlem and New York City, and in what ways does it offer a new foundation of knowledge for you and your students? Using a map of New York City, support students to notice the perimeter of Sugar Hill within Manhattan. Using resources suggested in Further Explorations, compare and contrast Sugar Hill in the 1920s to Sugar Hill today. What has changed? What has remained the same?

Your Neighborhood: People, Places, Culture. Take a walking tour of your school’s neighborhood with digital cameras, clipboards, and pencils in hand to document hallmarks of your local streets. Encourage students to notice the landscape, people, and cultural markers. Encourage them to notice something new about their own neighborhood that they had never noticed before. Create a class book that describes your own school’s neighborhood using Carole Boston Weatherford’s book as a mentor text for language, artistry, and layout.

Duet Model: Harlem. Using a duet model, compare and contrast Sugar Hill with Walter Dean Myers Caldecott Honor Book, Harlem. Support students to notice the songlike poetry of each text as well as the similarities in illustration style. Also support students to notice how Walter Dean Myers adds new layers of understanding to better understand Harlem including the pain of discrimination and racism depicted through the illustrations and words. Like, Sugar Hill, the topic may be out of context for many young students and teacher support will be needed to support students to understand frequent cultural references. Finally, support students to consider the ways in which both books depict pride and determination as defining characteristics of the neighborhoods they describe.

Black Entertainment History in America. Sugar Hill features many notable entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance. Use the websites listed below in Further Explorations, as well as reference materials from your local library to identify other notable Black entertainers in American history. What is similar and different about their rise to fame? What is different? How have those achievements developed over time, and in what sociopolitical context were those achievements made? Invite students to select other Black entertainment pioneers to study, and have them put together a multimedia presentation gathered of what they learned.

Book Design and Illustration Study. From the front cover, readers may find themselves drawn to Sugar Hill based on the large, bold, bright font of the title as well as the close-up of a woman winking and wearing a decorative hat. Upon close investigation, readers can begin to theorize themes of the book—that Sugar Hill is worth zooming in on, noticing, and admiring, and that the neighborhood in the 1920s was playing with ideas, metaphorically winking at the world. Throughout the text, the lead words of every page are capitalized, bold, and bright, suggesting significance. The illustrations are equally playful, conveying a lighthearted feel to the neighborhood at a time of great ideas and great actions. Support students to notice the choices the author, illustrator, and publisher made to draw readers in, to evoke feelings, and to inspire wonder. As students craft their own picture books, use Sugar Hill as a mentor text for playing with font size, color, and illustration for effect.

Illustrator Study. R. Gregory Christie is an illustrator with a rich collection of works and honors including being a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration for The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children (1996), Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006), and Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2001). His titles have also been included in the New York Times’ Year’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books. His own interests in jazz music, often influence his books and he has illustrated numerous jazz album covers. Research with students the depth and variety of Christie’s work in a focused illustrator study. Support students in small groups to compare Sugar Hill to another one of his titles or pieces noting characteristics of his style. Support upper elementary and middle school students to analyze the visual codes and conventions that convey meaning. Create a chart to support students’ thinking around visual codes including color, texture, line, shape, and form and conventions such as balance, layout, and verticality.

Lyrical Language: The World of Poetic Nonfiction. The language choices Weatherford makes create an engaging, poetic text meant to be read aloud again and again. Support students to notice rhyming patterns as well as structural choices such as the length of phrases and sentences as well as purposeful line breaks. Consider typing the text of the book in the form of a traditional poem. Support students to notice how the book is similar to and different from other kinds of poems. What effect does the picture book format have on our interpretation of the text? In what ways does transferring the print into a more traditional poetry format have on the meaning students make? What do students notice about the language choices Weatherford made that they didn’t notice before in the picture book format? What structural and sound choices did Weatherford make to create a poetic effect that they can incorporate into their own poetry writing?  Create a text set of poetic nonfiction texts to explore how other writers use poetry to provide readers with knowledge of people, places, and topics such as Love to Langston by Tony Medina, and Dave,the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill.

Critical Literacy

Grades 6-8

Authenticity in Multicultural Children’s Picture Books. Both the author and the illustrator of Sugar Hill are African American and have individually written and illustrated many books that feature African American history. In what ways do you think their race and cultural backgrounds supported the writing of this book? Does race and cultural background matter in the authorship of books that feature people of color? In what ways would the book have less “authenticity” if it had been written and/or illustrated by people with a different cultural background?

Black Elite. The first page of the book reads “Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill where life is sweet/ And the “A” train stops for the black elite.” How do students think the phrase “black elite” should be interpreted? In what ways could this phrase be interpreted differently by different people depending on their race and experience with the neighborhood of Sugar Hill?

Further Explorations
Online Resources

Author’s Site

Illustrator’s Site

History of Sugar Hill

Sugar Hill, Then and Now

409 Edgecombe Avenue, An Address of Influence in Sugar Hill

Broadway’s Housing Communities Site on Sugar Hill Development

The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling

Faith Ringgold and the Sugar Hill Museum

New York Times article on Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train

Black Entertainment History in America Timeline

Famous Entertainment Firsts in Black History - photo gallery

Black History Firsts in Arts & Entertainment


Adler, D. (1999). A picture book of Thurgood Marshall. Holiday House.

Fradin, D.B. (2012). Zora: The life of Zora Neale Hurston. Clarion Books.

Greenfield, E. (2009). Paul Robeson. New York, NY: Lee and Low Books.

Myers, W.D. (1997). Harlem. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Myers, W.D. (2008). Jazz. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Pinkney, A.D. (2006). Duke Ellington: The piano prince and his orchestra. Hyperion Books. 

Powell, P.H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. Chronicle Books.

Watson, R. (2012). Harlem’s little blackbird. New York, NY: Holiday House.