This month at the Lamp-Post, we talk about the role of humor in children’s literature with the always funny Betsy Bird.
Betsy is a Renaissance woman in the world of children’s literature – a librarian, author, blogger, and podcast host, and we are quite sure she has read almost everything published for children…ever. She edited Funny Girl, the 2018 collection of hilarious stories and comics by women writers. And her first very funny novel came out in 2021, Long Road to the Circus, illustrated by David Small.
During this wide-ranging conversation, we look at humor from many different perspectives.
On using humor as a superpower – “Own the humor. Use it…almost like a protective shield in some ways. Like, ‘You can’t laugh at me, dude. It was a joke on purpose.’” (7:33-8:07)
On humor’s role in helping kids with big topics – “An author has an ability to reach in and just grab your heart and squeeze it. If they are using humor, then they’re loosening that grip a little bit and they are letting you feel that it’s serious but that you are in safe hands.” (48:30-49:40)
On the role of weird – “I think that weird doesn’t get enough respect in these cases. I like books that take big swings. They just try something weird. I think it makes them more memorable.” (1:02 – 1:03)
Betsy makes some recommendations for funny books that she loves. For graphic novels, she recommends
DogMan series by Dav Pilkey
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale
Amelia Rules series by Jimmy Gownley
Breaking Cat News series by Georgia Dunn
Hilo series by Judd Winick
Max and the Midknights series by Lincoln Peirce
For middle grade novels, she recommends
It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds
I taught preschool from 2003 until 2019. In that time, “screen time” went from watching Sesame Street DVDs while parents were making dinner to iPads in the laps of toddlers in grocery store buggies. Endless rounds of The Wheels on the Bus in the carpool line were replaced by – well, I quite frankly have no idea, but it was on a screen. And don’t get me started on having Alexa read bedtime stories…
I will spare you my old-lady rant about technology and little kids. But, it does raise an interesting question about the need for funny children’s books. If the only reason for humor in children’s books is to make kids laugh, then we don’t need funny books at all. There are plenty of videos online that kids find hilarious. No need to pore over lists of funny books (like the ones put out annually by the always-funny Betsy Bird – see here and here). No need to drag a big stack home from the library. So inefficient! Instead, fire up the iPad or smartphone, click on the YouTube app, and let the shenanigans begin. No heavy tote bag, no overdue fines, no effort on the part of a grown up reader. Ahhh, bliss. Right?
Wrong. It will come as no surprise that I firmly believe there is still a place for funny books in the lives of our children. Maybe now more than ever. This month at the Lamp-Post, I will lay out my case for the importance of funny books for kids and the grown-ups who read to them. Along the way, we’ll visit with three books from the Read to Them list – Clementineby Sara Pennypacker, El Deafoby Cece Bell, and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. And, we’ll take a peek inside some other titles, too, just for fun.
Clementine tells the story of a little girl with a big personality. This first book in the series introduces us to Clementine, her family, her friend Margaret, and her life at school and in her apartment building. Clementine finds herself in all sorts of scrapes – from cutting off her friend’s hair to trying to solve the building’s pigeon problem to her irritation that she has a food-related name and her brother does not. Pennypacker laces all of these troubles with delightfully humorous word play and insights from Clementine.
El Deafo is the graphic novel memoir of Cece Bell’s childhood in the 1970s when she lost her hearing to an illness. Young Cece adapts to her bulky hearing aids with the help of her superhero alter-ego, El Deafo. As many graphic novels do, El Deafo highlights a wide range of emotions, from Cece’s despair over problems with friends, to her self-satisfied joy at her new-found celebrity status, gained through her Sonic Ear and the teacher’s transmitter.
In Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus we meet Aven Green who was born without arms. She has learned all sorts of ways to navigate her life, but things get more complicated when her family moves to a new town. While being armless is certainly a challenge, Aven finds the funny in many unfunny situations. She also helps her friends Connor and Zion look at the world through a funnier lens, all while solving a mystery about the Old West tourist attraction where she and her family live.
Let’s take a closer look at humor and children’s literature, using these three books as a starting point.
Humor helps kids believe in books and the people who read them aloud.
Laughing at a book together is an act of trust. To pull off a silly picture book, the reader has to really mean it – and play it up. And, by doing so, you show the listener that you can be trusted. Only people worthy of a child’s trust are willing to be ridiculous to make a book fun. As Mo Willems often says, to truly embody his books, you need a “shame-ectomy.” You need to have any sense of shame removed and only then are you ready to be the Pigeon.
Once the listener believes in the person reading the book, then – like magic – they believe in books, too. Think of funny picture books as the gateway drug to being a book person. Once you land them with a pigeon who dreams of driving a bus, the whole world of books can open up to them. And, they will take your hand and walk into all of those books with you because they trust you.
So, where do you go next? That’s easy – you go to Clementine and El Deafo and the many other books for new readers and early chapter book listeners. These books both extend that funny runway and introduce other ideas, too. Don’t get me wrong – there are real existential questions in funny picture books. (See, for example I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.) But, picture books tend to build to one big punchline, and they get there fast. Books like Clementine and El Deafo weave the funny stuff throughout a longer experience, scaffolding reading and listening endurance, building those literacy muscles.
Instead of one big joke, these longer books feature a series of funny moments – more like a sitcom than a gag. There are funny lines in both Clementine and El Deafo that trigger memories of a laugh track for those of us who grew up with 1970s sitcoms. Consider the scene where Clementine is trying to cheer up her little brother:
“I grabbed two slices of bologna and bit them into a pair of glasses, which is a trick I invented and only I know and now you will, too.”
Or when Cece is watching TV and the actor turns away from the camera:
“Who knows what’s going on now? I sure can’t lip-read a butt!”
When you read these bits aloud to a child, the laugh track is natural and so much more appealing. You build a bond between yourself and your listener and between your listener and books.
Humor helps kids see their own hilarity.
In my experience, kids are pretty funny. Sometimes they are real comedians, with timing to rival the most famous stand-up comics. But, more often, they are just funny in the moment. They view the world through eyes of wonder (until adults ruin it for them). When you really look at the world as something amazing as it unfolds in front of you, there is a lot of funny out there. Ok, some of it has to do with the funniest words in the English language – butt (see Cece above), poop, fart, and underwear – but some of it is more than that. If you look at a squirrel with wonder, pretty soon you are creating a whole narrative about the crazy things that squirrel might do. And, yes, the hilarious capers of the squirrel, seen through the eyes of a child, are likely to involve butts and poop. But they will also involve friends, adventure, escape, and mischief. (Some special grown-ups can do this, too – see this conversation with the amazing Lynne Rae Perkins, for example.)
Funny books let kids see that it is perfectly legit to tell funny stories. In fact, you might just get your funny story made into a book! Every kid who has ever thought they are secretly a superhero will be heartened by Cece Bell’s own funny superhero identity. When she shows off the “Mega-Magnification of the all-powerful Rosette,” then anyone’s undershirt can have magical powers, and undershirts are almost as funny as underwear.
Kids with siblings always have funny thoughts about those other kids in their house. Clementine gives voice to that funny stuff.
Okay, fine, my brother’s name is not really Spinach. But I got stuck with a name that is also a fruit, and it’s not fair that he didn’t. The only thing worse than a fruit name is a vegetable name, so that’s what I think he should have. I have collected a lot of names for him.
Voilà – it is perfectly fine to think funny thoughts and say funny things about your little brother because there it is, printed in a book. Heck, you can even call him Radish or Broccoli!
And, while most kids have two functioning arms, all kids have something that they are self-conscious about. So, when Aven spins outlandish tales about how she lost her arms, she is showing kids that they can find a way to make their own perceived shortcomings less embarrassing. One of my favorites is her story about losing her arms to a terrible trapeze accident:
I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply for drama. “When he caught me, my shoulder sockets came loose and my arms tore right off.”
He gaped at me. “What?”
Photo by Matthew T Rader, https://matthewtrader.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88955618
“It was awful,” I went on. “Him just hanging up there holding some arms, blood showering the screaming audience. It was all over the news. Didn’t you see it?”
These books help to preserve that sense of wonder, and to grow a belief that humor is not just allowed – it’s cool. It builds the ability within children to find the humor roaming around in their lives. It tells kids that they can be in on the joke and, in fact, be part of the joke.
Humor helps lighten heavy literary loads.
Throughout the history of literature, humor has been used to add comic relief to tragic stories. (See, for example, the bawdy Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) Children’s book authors have the unique opportunity to create stories to help real kids facing real stuff in real life. These books are essential for kids because they help build a toolkit for whatever life has in store. They support kids facing similar trials, and they build empathy in kids lucky enough not to be facing those same trials. But these books can only help if their stories get read and absorbed, and a little humor helps make sure that happens.
When you finish Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you don’t say, “WOW – life without arms would be so horrible. I am so glad that book is over so I never have to think about that again!” Instead, you say, “WOW – life without arms is really challenging, and I just don’t see how Aven does all that stuff with her feet, but she does and she even laughs about it too!” In fact, Dusti Bowling includes a hilarious list of 20 fantastic things about not having arms. Here are just a few examples:
No rough elbows. My mom has eczema, so I know what a curse rough elbows can be.
No getting caught picking my nose. My shoes are usually in the way.
No golf. Well, I suppose I could figure out a way to play golf but I’m so not gonna because golf is booooring.
No flabby flapjack arms when I get old. My great-grandma has those. Hopefully she’s not reading this.
By the time you finish the book, you are pretty thankful that you have arms, but you are not in deep despair over Aven’s fate. And, when the next bump in the road comes along – pebble or boulder-sized – you might just say, “If Aven can get dressed without arms, maybe I can persevere, too.”
I guarantee you that kids reading El Deafo are wishing they had a Sonic Ear so they could listen in on everything their teacher does outside the classroom, especially going to the bathroom!
<tinkle tinkle tinkle>
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA Sweet relief.”
And sweet Clementine provides some humor for kids who are constantly told to “Pay attention.” Like this scene from the art room, right at the beginning of the book.
Then I got busy working on my project so I wouldn’t have to hear any “Clementine-pay-attention!”s.
which is followed closely by:
“Clementine, you need to pay attention!” the art teacher said one more time. And just like the other times, I was paying attention.
I was paying attention to Margaret’s empty seat.
These three books are part of a category that deal with heavy themes but with a hefty dose of humor to soften the blow. Think of a spectrum going from nothing-but-laughs at one end to deep misery at the other end. Both ends of the spectrum have their place, but a lot of great work gets done in the middle, mixing comedy and tragedy to deliver a story that lasts. These are the books that we love here at Read to Them – books leavened with laughter that have something else, too.
Stories that are full of hijinks can also have some depth. A new favorite around here is The Terrible Twoby Jory John and Mac Barnett. Come for the cow jokes and pranks, stay for the Prankster’s Code and finding your kindred spirit in a new place. As we move along the continuum, changing the mix of pathos and humor, we come to other favorites. Jason Reynolds adds boogers, complicated handshakes, and a bus falling from the sky to the real-life challenges facing the kids in Look Both Ways. And Katherine Applegate gives us a giant imaginary cat to help understand homelessness in Crenshaw and a wise-cracking crow to address Islamophobia in Wishtree.
People much smarter than me have said that children’s books must have hope – indeed it is the presence of hope that separates children’s literature from adult literature. I think we should add humor to that list of essential ingredients for building bonds with our emerging readers. In times of great uncertainty and upheaval, such as our children have lived through for the past two years, these books are even more critical. As Aven says in her list of “twenty supplies you need to survive middle school when you don’t have arms,” a sense of humor is a huge help in facing life’s challenges – for kids and for adults. Books like Clementine, El Deafo, and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus just might be the key to incubating and growing that essential tool.
Spend time with the amazing Mom in your life by reading aloud together this Mother’s Day. To get you started, Read to Them has culled a list of six titles with unforgettable Moms, Grandmas, and even some not-so-conventional maternal figures, too. Check them out below:
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña – This Newbery Award winning picture book takes place over the course of a single bus ride CJ shares with his grandmother. When CJ wonders why they don’t have a car like his friends, Nana helps him see the beauty in their city and their routine.
Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech – Rosie doesn’t always get along with her best friend, Bailey, but spending an afternoon in the kitchen with Granny Torrelli never fails to bring them together. Using her recipes and her stories, Granny Torrelli reminds readers of all ages about the importance of love, life, and friendship – all while serving up a delicious bowl of soup!
A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold – In this Read to Them staple, Bixby Alexander Tam struggles to see the world like the other kids around him. Bat, however, has an incredible mom who encourages his special interests and meets him at his level with no small amount of support and patience.
Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliot – When an emergency sends Jax and his mother scrambling, Jax finds himself in the company of Ma, who insists she isn’t Jax’s grandmother even though she took care of Jax’s mom when she was little. The one thing Ma can’t deny, though, is all the strange things happening around her. Join Jax as he and Ma embark on the dragon egg delivery of a life-time!
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown – Roz is a lone robot who washes up on a deserted island filled with hostile wildlife. It’s only when Roz adopts an orphaned gosling – and fully embraces the complexities of motherhood – that she finds herself supported by a family far bigger than she ever imagined.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper – Melody has cerebral palsy, which means that she is unable to speak, write, or move around without the aid of a wheelchair. With the aid of her neighbor and her mother (her dad, too!), Melody is able to find her voice for the first time.
If you read any of these titles to celebrate Mother’s Day, be sure to share your photos with Read to Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy reading!
Since 1919, Children’s Book Week has endeavored to celebrate and bolster books for younger audiences. It’s the longest-running literacy initiative in the United States, and you can participate on an individual, small group, or even community-wide level. Be sure to check your local libraries and bookstores to see if there are any in-person events in your area.
The event takes place May 2nd – 8th. You won’t want to miss it!
This year, Read to Them has asked staff to share the children’s books that impacted their lives. Dive into the list below – and be sure to share your favorite children’s books with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Kayla Aldrich – Programs Specialist
Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman
I grew up with a house full of dogs, and any kind of book or media that featured a sweet-faced, furry friend could’ve been labeled Kayla Bait. Eastman’s illustrations were so bright, colorful, and distinct (just like the other Eastman classic, Are You My Mother?) that I can still picture the red and the yellow dogs riding off toward a setting, marigold sun at the book’s close.
All that fun stuff aside, this was the first book that I can recall reading aloud with my parents. The silly, borderline nonsensical narrative was something that all of us got a kick out of. It became a bedtime routine staple, and the copy that’s on my childhood bookshelf has the well-worn spine to show for it. Even now, my dad and I still quote the book’s running joke of “Do you like my hat?” “I do not!”
Whether we realize it at the time or not, the books we encounter as children shape us into the readers we become as adults. I wouldn’t trade my time with Go, Dog, Go! for anything.
Bruce Coffey – Director of Programs
The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The first “hard” book I read and didn’t put down. Somehow realized/recognized there was something here there, even if it was not presented as easy or normal as I was used to. I soldiered through and ended up growing in the process. Charmed and blessed. And grew as a reader. Became a more sophisticated reader.
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
I like to say that Read to Them (the office anyway) is the house that Humphrey built. This may be true, but it wouldn’t have happened w/out The Trumpet of the Swan. This is the first book we read as a school at Fox Elementary – an All School Read, we called it Fox Reads One Book – the first book I prepared a supporting resource suite of materials for (including the vaunted Principal’s Talking Points). Read to Them founder, Gary Anderson, and I ordered 5000 copies and stored them in my garage, and when a school wanted to try One School, One Book, I went to my garage and took 6 boxes of books to the post office. RTT’s early garage days.
Anne Curry – Regional Outreach Manager
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
My best friend gave my newborn daughter Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes this book 24 years ago.
On the inside, she wrote, “May you always have the thrill of a purple plastic purse in your heart.”
I love my friend’s inscription, but this book holds even more treasured blessings like the values of patience, personal responsibility, courage, and forgiveness.
Lilly impatiently wants to show off her purple plastic purse, but her classmates and teacher, Mr. Slinger, are not excited. It’s not the right time! They are in the middle of a lesson! Lilly is hurt, and she becomes angry. The magic of this book is watching Lilly process disappointment and anger, ultimately realizing she made mistakes. And graciously, Mr. Slinger accepts the apology. Our world could learn some lessons from Lilly and Mr. Slinger.
Emily Gerber – Marketing Manager
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Growing up, one of my favorite children’s books was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. My kindergarten class did a whole art unit where we made pictures inspired by Carle’s illustrations. We drew animals and then glued small, square scraps of tissue paper to paper onto them to bring their fur and scales to life. I remember being so excited about the art project because I adored the story – and now I realize, as an adult, that it was my first experience where a book transcended the boundary of its pages and inspired new creativity, imagination, and connection.
Sara Hudson – Programs Manager
The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold
Iris and Sarah are best friends – the kind of friends everyone wants to have – until Sarah is tragically killed in a freak accident, leaving Iris with unanswerable questions. Iris and her family move from Southern California to Corvallis, Oregon because her mom gets a dream job (and maybe because the family thinks a fresh start will be helpful for Iris). In rainy Oregon, Iris is befriended by Boris, a boy in her class who is a medical miracle. He wasn’t supposed to survive more than a few hours after birth, but he did, perhaps because of the fervent prayers of some nuns to a long-dead Pope. Now, the Vatican is looking to certify Boris as a real miracle to help that Pope to sainthood. Iris thinks that if there was a miracle for Boris, maybe there can be a miracle for Sarah and she can still be alive, or at least still contact Iris.
Why it impacted me: This is a quiet book. The big upheaval happens before the book starts, and we meet Iris after Sarah’s death. The details of the accident are revealed later in the book, but the story is really about Iris’s journey with grief. Elana has successfully written a children’s book with no villains – no awful bullies; no terrible teachers; no absent, negligent, or abusive parents. The villain is grief – unfair, unexpected, and unpredictable grief. It is such an honest book filled with people doing their best in a terrible situation. On a personal note, I am friends with a family facing a similar set of circumstances having lost their daughter to an act of violence with a friend of hers looking on. This little book went straight to that place in my heart trying to make sense of that terrible tragedy. While Elana doesn’t spoon feed the reader any answers, she does what she is supposed to do. She offers hope without dismissing the pain.
One School, One Book has been a staple at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, Florida since 2015. The program has even remained strong during the pandemic thanks to the combined efforts of Tracy Leskanic, co-chair Gifted Program Teacher, and Tamara Gramlich, co-chair Library Media Technology Specialist.
North Shore hosted a reading night under the stars.
The dynamic duo build excitement with the support of North Shore’s PTA, as well as the dedicated teachers who help with the “surprise” elements of the event. The selected title is always announced during an awards ceremony attended by all students, staff, and parents.
Looking back at their inaugural OSOB, Leskanic shares that the biggest difference in how they launch their program is a simple yet vital shift:
“We have learned that if we keep [the book title] a mystery for the students, they become more and more excited!”
Gramlich adds, “We had started out using the ‘classics.’ You know – the books that were written way before any of our kids were born. Now, we try to pick books that have a newer copyright. There have been some colorful discussions in [our school’s book] committee when we are choosing a book because we are all so passionate about our pick for the upcoming year. We love the process, and wouldn’t change it for anything.”
North Shore Elementary’s read aloud titles include Kenny and the Dragon, The World According to Humphrey, The Chocolate Touch, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Fenway and Hattie, Appleblossom the Possum, and The Toothpaste Millionaire. Most recently, students at North Shore dove into the magical world of Dragons in a Bag.
“This was the first time in history that we had a Knight on our campus…”
To Leskanic, one of the most unforgettable OSOB experiences was having a real knight in shining armor (Mr. Casey Maker) visit North Shore during Kenny and the Dragon.
“Our school has always been the North Shore Knights,” Gramlich shares. “This was the first time in history that we had a Knight on our campus and to see the kids react to him was amazing. Even though they knew him, it was like they were seeing him for the first time.”
As they look ahead to future OSOB reading events, both Gramlich and Leskanic are eager to move beyond pandemic limitations to make their OSOB “more of an event again.” In the meantime, the steady excitement of their students even after eight years drives them onward.
“Each year our students will ask when is OSOB? What book is it?” Leskanic says. “They are [always] eager to find out. That, to us, is exciting.”
“Connectedness. One thing leads to another. Often in unexpected ways.”
― Holly Goldberg Sloan, Counting by 7s
Recently, I had the pleasure of moving my young adult son halfway across the country. In truth, it wasn’t pleasurable. It was hard and sad and scary. But I pretended like it was pleasurable. Because – after graduating from college during the pandemic and being isolated at home for the last two years – I knew it was high time my son had the chance to live on his own, to start his life, to become the person he is meant to be. This period in history has robbed many of our young people from having the chance to do that. My kid was more than ready. I, on the other hand, was not.
But within hours of arriving in Oklahoma, things shifted. I watched the people of his new community fold him into it as if he already belonged there. From the older man in the apartment next door who insisted on waiting for the mattress delivery, to the new boss who told my son she would “try hard not to ‘mom’ you too much,” I knew this kid already had a village. A village that would pick up where his family left off. As I waved goodbye and drove my rental car back to the airport, I knew everything was going to be okay. Others would make sure of it.
There is an interconnectedness we experience when we ask – then trust – others to be part of our story. There is a coming together when we realize we are in this together. This month, At the Lamp-Post has been exploring the theme of Earth Day through three titles on our list that tackle different environmental issues. Whether they hail from a small suburban town, a farmer’s vegetable garden, or a remote village in the middle of Malawi, the protagonists in these books learn that working together on a micro level can lead us to tackle issues on a macro one, that our environments can only be protected when our interconnectedness is understood. Change can only happen when we ask others to care about something as much as we do…then trust them to do so.
Linda Sue Park’s Project Mulberry starts out being all about teamwork. Julia, the main character, and her best friend Patrick are the kind of friends that – when one is mad, the other, “almost always knows it without asking.” But when Julia’s Korean-born mother suggests they raise silkworms for their state fair project – and Patrick whole-heartedly embraces it – Julia suddenly doesn’t feel so best friend-y toward him. In fact, she tries to sabotage the project. Raising silkworms is way too “Korean” for Julia, who desperately wants “a nice, All-American, red-white-and-blue kind of project.”
“I didn’t want my house to smell like kimchee. I didn’t want kids to yell, ‘Chinka-Chinka-Chinaman’ at me. And I didn’t want to do something weird and Asian for the Wiggle Club.”
It’s easy to sympathize with Julia. She wants to find a project she’s passionate about, but raising silkworms just isn’t it. Yet, she realizes that letting down Patrick would be, “a lousy thing to do to a friend.”
As Julia wrestles with her feelings toward the project, others embrace it. From Mr. Maxwell, the sustainable farmer who runs the Wiggle Club, to Mr. Dixon, the man whose Mulberry tree supplies leaves for the silkworms, a community of caregivers is created. Even Kenny, Julia’s annoying little brother, begins to take the project seriously when Patrick asks if he will record the temperature inside the aquarium every day. “It’s a matter of life and death,” Patrick tells him. As the community around the project grows, so does Julia’s passion for it. By the time the silkworm eggs hatch, she is no longer thinking about what is best for her and is instead focused on what’s best for the whole – for the project, for the people involved, and mostly for the “little tiny itsy-bitsy worms” that will eventually spin the cocoons of silk. In the end, true teamwork is evident when it’s time to kill the worms in order to collect the thread. Patrick knows without asking how this makes Julia feel.
“I’ll do it, Jules. You can go up to your room, or whatever. You don’t have to be there when – when—”
“No,” she replies. “I want us to do it together.”
So together, they pick which cocoons they will boil for the silk. Together, they decide which worms will get to live and turn into moths. And together they bury the dead worms, knowing their decomposing bodies will go back into the soil. Together – along with their community of caregivers – they flesh out, work through, and celebrate the highs and lows of a project. That’s teamwork. That’s interconnectedness.
“He was only one squirrel. There wasn’t much time. What should he do?”
This is the underlying question in Lynne Rae Perkins’ beautifully written book, Nuts to You, a story about one squirrel whose “unfortunate snatching” by a hawk sends him and his whole squirrel squad on an incredible journey of self-discovery, survival and how to best care for not only oneself, but the greater community. After Jed’s disappearance, the rest of the squirrels are shocked and sorrowful. “Let’s eat a nut and remember our friend,” says one. But Chai and TsTs – Jed’s best friends – have already put a different plan in motion. TsTs is pretty sure she witnessed the hawk dropping Jed, and she convinces Chai to set off with her to find him. Eventually they do, but their journey reveals more than just their friend’s whereabouts – they learn that humans are chain sawing their way through the forest, cutting down tree branches around the “buzzpaths” (power lines). Clearly this poses a great threat to the squirrels’ home and the lives of their family and friends.
“Amid screaming flashes of silver, homes and highways crashed to the ground, where they piled up in heaps of wreckage. There was nothing to do but run.”
And run they do. Jed, TsTs and Chai run until they realize they can’t run from it anymore. They must go back and convince the other squirrels that the “racket” is more than just an annoyance; it’s an imminent danger on the way to destroy their community. But squirrels – they aren’t easily convinced of things. Especially when they’re busy preparing for what they see as the real threat – winter. Jed, TsTs and Chai have to get creative and figure out a way to move everyone, and quickly. So, they make it into a game.
“Why will they believe it’s a game, when they don’t believe us about the racket?” asked Jed.
“Because, like all of you have been saying,” said TsTs, smiling, “we’re squirrels. We want to believe in games.”
Nuts to You is not only a book about the environment and what is happening to it, but it’s also a story about what it feels like to care deeply about something and be reliant on others to help preserve it. It’s a story about what happens when we can’t take care of something alone…when we need others to help us do it. Sometimes teamwork is the only way we can get to where we need to go – physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Change happens when everyone moves toward the same end game, even – as in the case of squirrels – when the game has to be silly before it becomes serious.
Change also happens when teamwork allows one person’s vision to become everyone’s reality. In William Kamkwamba’s autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, we meet young William, a brilliant boy growing up in a poor village in Malawi. William loves hearing the folktales his father tells at night, though eventually he develops a “healthy dose of skepticism” and begins to look at the world in a different way, one that he decides is “explained by fact and reason, rather than mystery and hocus-pocus.” As his love for science grows, so does Malawi’s death toll from the famine that grips the country. Growing, too, is the belief among the villagers that William is “misala” or crazy, as he gathers junkyard scraps to build what he thinks may “change the lives of the people around him.” But those people taunt him, saying, “Ah, look, the madman has come with his garbage,” and that William is, “just a crazy boy who plays with toys and refuses to work.”
William sees it differently. And, despite the teasing of the villagers or the initial doubt of his own family, he also sees something else. Like Julia in Project Mulberry, he sees something bigger than just him.
“Where others see garbage, I see opportunity.”
William is set on building a windmill and finding the people who are willing to help him. Ms. Sikelo, the librarian, teaches him how to borrow books from the tiny library in the primary school. His father is eventually willing to part with his bicycle so that William can use it for the frame of the windmill. The welder, Mister Godsten, connects the shock absorber shaft to the bicycle’s bottom bracket, allowing the wheel to spin. Even William’s friend, Gilbert, digs up the drainage pipe from his family’s bathhouse, a move that’s quite unpopular with his father. William forages for people to help move his plan forward in the same way he forages for trash he will turn into treasure.
A close-up of William’s windmill
“What can do the pedaling for me so that both of us can dance?”
Though his vision is unclear, his tribe of supporters begin to believe in him. William is the brains behind the project, but his success is directly enhanced by his interconnectedness with others. Never does he lose faith that others will see the project the way he does. He keeps his focus on the fact that building the windmill will prove to be for the greater good. He is convinced that, “If we can all invent something to make our lives better, we can change Malawi.”
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reminds us of the power in teamwork. Of encouraging others to get behind an idea, even when the outcome isn’t clear. William sees opportunity in dreamers, and that vision drives others to dream.
There’s a phrase that many believe to be an old African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” That phrase resonated through my head a few weeks ago as I boarded the plane leaving Oklahoma. I thought about my son, and the big life ahead of him. I thought about the people who would serve as stepping stones to that big life. And I thought about the characters in these three books – how each of them came to realize that their success, survival, or vision would only manifest if they asked, then trusted, others to believe in them.
Growth happens when we realize we are not alone. When we reach for the talents and treasures of others. When we realize we can breathe easier because someone will pick up our work and move it forward. These three titles help us celebrate the power of teamwork. They remind young readers of the interconnectedness of our world and that – together – we can make big differences for our planet. And we can thank our stars for each of our own little villages.
In celebration of Earth Day, listen to our conversation about Conservation in children’s literature with Lynne Rae Perkins, author of Nuts to You.
We talk about unexpected inspirations for stories, a subconscious interest in rodents, the fine art of writing about connections (those missed, and those made), and how writers choose phrases and metaphors that can plant seeds in the minds of student readers.
Lynne Rae Perkins won the Newbery Medal for Criss Cross. She has written other novels about humans including All Alone in the Universe and Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea, and many beautiful picture books that have some animals and some humans. While illustrating a book about Johnny Appleseed, the seed of an idea for a book about squirrels took root and grew into the delightful story of adventure, loyalty, persuasion, and the importance of trees, that became Nuts to You.
For the last twelve years, Gates Elementary in Davison, Michigan has held an annual One School, One Book reading event. The school-wide reading program is one that students and staff eagerly look forward to each year.
“OSOB [really] brings families and schools together,” says Theresa Wendt, who has been the Principal at Gates Elementary for 22 years. “Seeing what others have done helps bring about change in how we do things at Gates. It is always an exciting time!”
“The Tale of Despereaux” is but one of many titles Gates Elementary explored.
Wendt goes on to share the path that brought Gates Elementary into the OSOB fold.
“In the late 2000’s, the Gates PTO started a Winter Reading Challenge for students. Participation was ‘okay’, but it seemed like the adults were doing a lot more work on it than the number of students participating.”
It wasn’t until two years after starting this winter challenge that Wendt happened to come across a small article about One School, One Book in a professional magazine. Intrigued, Wendt shared the piece with one of her teachers and the Gates PTO.
“They were sold!” Wendt says. “Gates has now been doing OSOB for 12 years with each year getting better than the last.”
During their lengthy tenure with OSOB, Wendt and her staff have used many strategies to get families actively engaged. There is always a kickoff, and most years have a student assembly or a family fun night, as well. Book bags, labeled with the families’ names, are made up with all of the materials families will need: a letter introducing the book, a reading schedule, suggested vocabulary, and even at-home activities. Families are encouraged to read each night as a family, and teachers read the chapters aloud the next day for students who may not have had time to do the reading the night before.
“Usually we conclude our reading with a family fun night where activities are planned that correlate with the book,” Wendt says.
“Usually we conclude our reading with a family fun night where activities are planned that correlate with the book,” Wendt says. “For example, the year we read The Lemonade War, our family night included a lemonade war between grade levels. Another year, we had a good egg/bad egg station when we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where students could choose an egg that was filled with a little pack of bamboozle jelly beans and another station where students were able to make their own candy. Parents and students always look forward to this night as we are all talking about the book and the fun we had reading it and completing the activities.”
Amid Covid, however, the staff at Gates adapted the program so there were nightly Zoom sessions for families to listen and follow along as teachers read the OSOB selection aloud. It proved to be a popular choice, a necessity for the time. Wendt notes that, as the world gravitates back to normalcy, “[our OSOB] should be [rooted] more in family time – time spent together reading and talking about the book.”
Upon reflection, Wendt says that the biggest change from their first OSOB to their most recent has been the planning. In the first year, the program preparations were done by five people who stayed late on a Friday afternoon. Now the process has become fluid and smooth.
“The organization of getting bags ready for close to 500 families was the most difficult part,” Wendt says. “We [just] did not plan for our first year. Now, we select our book in November/December and get it ordered right away then we start working on the items we share with families.”
It can be challenging to generate excitement for a program year after year, but Wendt believes she and her staff have a simple yet ingenious solution: the book selection.
“We always try to select a book that is part of a series,” Wendt says. “Sometimes, it just takes one book to turn a child into a reader and if it happens to be our OSOB then we want them to have more chances to read that author. I also believe that staff talking about the book with students helps hype up the program at Gates.”
Book selection doubles as the part of the program Wendt looks forward to each year. Though it’s not an easy decision, Wendt appreciates the opportunity to share a “good book with a significant number of people.”
The year that The World According to Humphrey was selected as an OSOB, one of the teachers bought a hamster for the school.
Wendt adds that her school has been visited by Jacqueline Davies, author of The Lemonade War and, most recently, had a visit from Allan Woodrow, author of Class Dismissed. The year that The World According to Humphrey was selected as an OSOB, one of the teachers bought a hamster for the school. The Gates’ Humphrey visited each classroom for a day, and the classes kept a journal that was passed around so everyone could read about Humphrey’s adventures at Gates.
Wendt has no doubt that OSOB has had a positive impact on her school. Students enjoy the experience, and she feels the school “really comes together as a family” when they are united behind one book. She and her staff are already looking forward to the next event, and all the joy, excitement, and memories that lay ahead.
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
— John Muir
On April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day. It seems a fitting occasion to appreciate how the poetry and dedication of passionate environmental reformers like Muir have left us a legacy that includes our glorious National Park system and the celebration of Earth Day for over 50 years. It’s also an occasion, at The Lamp-Post, to consider how children’s literature can awaken the curiosity of new generations of John Muirs – citizens who are attuned to language and nature. Authors inspire us with the magic of stories and the wisdom of characters who stay in the mind and become part of a reader’s world view, affecting the way we perceive the world and react to its new challenges.
Muir’s words remain inspiring, and so I’d like to take a closer look at how inspiration can be found in three different works – Nuts to You, squirrels rescuing squirrels in a vulnerable forest, by Lynne Rae Perkins; Project Mulberry, two students raise silkworms and learn about sustainable farming, by Linda Sue Park; and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the resourceful William Kamkwamba uses junkyard gold to build a windmill and bring energy and electricity (and water) to his village, by Kamkwamba (with Bryan Mealer).
In exploring these titles, I focus on the ingenuity required to preserve our natural world, mining these titles for the verbal and anecdotal seeds the authors have planted in these works, seeds that can inspire readers. In each of these books the characters are ingenious by necessity. Ingenuity is critical in figuring out how to preserve species or habitats. The progress that leads to Earth Day – or the great horned owl or the snail darter or the axolotl! – comes from inspired new ideas. As Julia Song notes midway through Project Mulberry: “Good ideas were hard!”
“Cautiously, they crept to the chewed-off edge of the livable world.”
The squirrels in Nuts to You – Chai and TsTs – set out to rescue Jed. (You’re supposed to pronounce TsTs phonetically, “Tsuh-tsuh,” although Perkins recommends making two tongue clicks to be more accurate, just one of the playful details that makes reading the book so fun.) Along the way they discover a friend among the red squirrels, née Tchotke, but she goes by Tchke, which is much easier to say. They discover that humans are cutting down vegetation along their “buzzpaths” – the strips of land occupied by power transformers and electrical wires – which threaten their home, the Grove.
The book opens when Jed is captured by a hawk, and though that should be the end for Jed, he is alert and level-headed enough to practice the squirrel martial art of Hai Tchree. He distracts the hawk ever so slightly by alerting him to “Mice!” in the field below, and when he senses the slackening of the hawk’s grip he makes like water and is able to drop out of the hawk’s talons to fall safely to the field below. Ingenious!
The squirrels themselves do not at first truly understand the threat they are facing. They know the chain saws are loud, and that trees are falling, but they don’t know the humans are not actually clear-cutting, but merely pruning the designated alleys for the buzzpaths.
The critical moment of ingenuity in Nuts to You involves social psychology. When Chai, TsTs, Jed, and Tchke return, they recognize the Grove is doomed and that they need to find a way to get their colony of squirrels out before it’s too late. Somehow they don’t think their friends and family will just trust their say-so, but by playing on their well-found knowledge that squirrels love games (one of many squirrel culture traits that Lynne Rae Perkins playfully embellishes), they devise an elaborate game reminiscent of capture the flag that succeeds in saving the squirrel colony.
At the novel’s close, a wise old squirrel offers some perspective, understanding that in places where the humans build condominiums, animal habitats are truly destroyed. This squirrel has parlayed a mutual love of peanut butter and learned to communicate with the lunch-toting lumberjacks. He sagely notes that “in a nutshell, I didn’t leave the forest. The forest left me.” But his parting words are: “I wish humans understood how important trees are.”
John Muir would be happy to hear this sentiment expressed so succinctly in a children’s novel. He’d also be heartened that an evolving literature – which includes Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; The Overstory, by Richard Powers, and The Search for the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard – has begun to articulate and teach us all both the wisdom of trees and the ways in which they actually communicate. As if the Ents from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or the wise old Red from Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree are among us after all.
“Patrick looked at him and then at me… and said exactly what I was thinking: ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’”
Ingenuity is encountered in more obvious ways in Project Mulberry, but it sometimes comes from unexpected quarters. Julia and Patrick embark on a project to raise silkworms for the state fair. It’s an odyssey of discovery as they learn they’ll need to procure mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms, study each stage of the silkworm’s development, figure out how to depict and document their progress, and eventually confront unexpected ethical dilemmas when it’s time to harvest the silk.They get a massive save when they encounter the genial Mr. Dixon who has the only mulberry tree in town and is happy to let them harvest as many leaves as they want to feed the silkworms.
The first problem they have to solve is how to keep Julia’s annoying little brother, Kenny, from messing with the growing silkworms. Patrick suggests bringing Kenny closer to the project, in order to get him to respect and preserve it. It works, and Kenny becomes an integral part of the team. He is the first to spot a subtle change in the appearance of the eggs, indicating progress toward hatching.He’s also the one to suggest that the way to film the silkworms clearly is to put them in glass jars. (Ingenious!)
Julia and Patrick learn to manage all the little challenges that come with this brand new project such as how to care for and mist their precious mulberry leaves, how to count the eggs and learn patience, how to recognize the tiny silkworms when they’ve hatched, and how to feed them regularly (more than they expect!). They become truly inspired when their club takes a field trip to Mr. Maxwell’s farm to learn about sustainable farming. (Linda Sue Park borrowed details from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, made famous in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.) There they come to truly understand the importance of “the cycle” in understanding how Nature works best. They gain insights here that may last the rest of their lives:
“The caterpillar had already wrapped itself in a layer of silk. It looked like it was living inside a cloud. We could see its black mouth moving, moving, busy, busy, busy.”
Mr. Maxwell teaches them what it means “to feel responsibility for what we eat.” He details the ingenious cycle of his farm: the cows eat the grass; the cow poop fertilizes the grass; the chickens eat the maggots that grow in the cowpats, aerate the soil, and distribute the fertilizer; the sheep come in and eat all the weeds; and then the cows return… It’s a brilliant, self-sustaining operation that makes for happy cows, happy chickens, and happy sheep, and it inspires Julia and Patrick to further contemplate the power of nature’s cycles.
My favorite moment in the book is when Julia and Patrick resolve to harvest their minuscule amounts of silkworm poop and take it across town to fertilize Mr. Dixon’s mulberry tree. It feels more like a ritual gesture, but it suggests that Julia and Patrick have got religion on sustainable farming, and it’s not hard to believe that thinking self-reflectively, taking the extra time for small gestures, and doing the right thing even if it’s more time consuming, will become an integral part of the people they each become.
I would like to believe the same is true for readers. Who’s to say which reader absorbs Julia’s lesson from Mr. Maxwell, but that’s how literature works. Children’s literature, too. Just as Charlotte’s Web has helped generations of readers to think about the life of a spider, or the interrelations in the barn, a host of children’s novels have provided iconic moments that teach these messages, too. Jean Craighead George introduced us to Sam Gribley, the boy who steals away to live independently in the Catskills, in My Side of the Mountain(1959). Sam shows us all how to live in the natural world, working with the bounty it provides. E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan (1970) opens with the budding naturalist, Sam Beaver, who discovers and protects the trumpeter swan eggs before befriending Louis. The super intelligent rats in Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1974) abandon the notion of stealing from humans, and create their own sustainable farm in Thorn Valley. More recently, Carl Hiaasen has written a quintet of witty, moving books in which young conservations fight to preserve animals and habitats in Florida. See: Hoot (2002), Flush (2005), Scat (2009), Chomp (2012), and Squirm (2018). Lesser known works like Bill Harley’s Night of the Spadefoot Toads (2008) depict curious, sensitive characters learning how to recognize, appreciate, and protect the sensitive wildlife around them. And just now Katherine Applegate has presented us with Willodeen (2021) whose story revolves on the discovery of how interdependent habitats are, just like Maxwell’s Farm.
“I was filled with the desire to understand, and the questions never stopped coming.”
William Kamkwamba is the epitome of ingenuity. In his memoir, adapted in a young readers edition, William details the quandary his village faces. A drought. No money to buy seed for maize, the one cash crop they can raise. Nights filled with darkness as they have no electricity. And the endless walk to haul water as they have no electric pumps. William is only 14 when he sets about to build a windmill to generate enough electricity for his family. William’s motto is, “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity.” He solves every problem and meets every challenge by heading to the junkyard and harvesting spare parts. He uses a Walkman, a condenser, five radios, and a homemade microphone to build his own little neighborhood radio station. His windmill combines a gum tree, more bicycle parts, and scrap from the junkyard to show that electricity is possible for his entire village. Eventually, William figures out how to use solar panels to pump water for his village, ending the need for those long walks. William has a mind and a can-do problem-solving mentality that never stops thinking, tinkering, solving.
Another mantra (he reminds me of Rikki Tikki Tavi) is: “I guess I’ll have to research this a little more.” Whether William is building soccer balls (plastic bags bound with rope) or toy trucks (cardboard beer cartons bound with wire) or contemplating how his family can get the corn seed to grow more maize, William is a relentless problem solver. His family ends up “selling all of our food” (their remaining seed corn) to buy flour to make fried cakes that they sell at the market. They turn a profit on the elaborate transaction and manage to survive the famine until they can actually grow maize again.
William’s resourcefulness is partly borne from the culture in Malawi. When he builds a trap – rubber bicycle tube, broken bicycle spoke, clothesline wire, maize chaff, four bricks – it’s not as if he’s dreamed it up anew. Where William lives, you have to be resourceful. But William dreams bigger than traps, soccer balls, and toy cars. When he sees the energy that can be generated by pedaling a bicycle, he thinks beyond his family. He thinks of his village and eventually dreams, “What if every home and shop in Wimbe had machines on the rooftops to catch the wind?” And he makes that dream come true.
“What can do the pedaling for me so that both of us can dance?”
What does all this have to do with conservation, the environment, and John Muir? William explains that the problem is not an actual lack of electricity in Malawi. Because of deforestation, the government-operated turbines get clogged regularly from runoff, which turns off the power at night in rural villages. Electricity became more expensive, causing many families to use wood for heating and cooking, leading to more deforestation.
The famine Malawi experienced in 2001 was exacerbated by the end of government support for fertilizer, devastating floods, and finally drought. Thus William’s family recourse to the ingenious flour cake solution, employing first hand elementary principles of market economics.William’s windmill isn’t about to solve every problem in Malawi. But his ingenuity offers a problem-solving template for those who will eventually find smarter, nation-wide solutions.
William’s ingenuity is fueled by his endless curiosity. He is a born researcher. He gets access to science books from an American literary mission and finds his touchstone, Using Energy. He transposes the ideas he learns, using rudimentary materials, to build his windmill. After people become aware of his successes, he is invited to give a TED Talk in Tanzania. He gets access to a computer for the first time and quips, “Where was this Google when I needed it?” Eventually the success of his book leads him to Dartmouth College. While earning his degree there his favorite haunt is the “tool library” in the School of Engineering where William can borrow tools and experiment to his heart’s content. He demonstrates that you don’t need Google or a computer when you have your own fervent brain to invent solutions working with the resources you have, one with the land and your people.
“A windmill meant more than just power. It was freedom.”
We want student readers – kids – to be ingenious, too. In educating parlance, we want them to learn how to be creative problem solvers. These books all display playful and ingenious creative problem solving in which students can learn vicariously. Teachers regularly challenge their students with projects to evince creative problem solving. When you read these three books, look for the places where a sentiment or image might just be the little niggling idea that gets planted in a student’s mind, and never goes away, affecting how they see the world and spark some new idea in their future. That’s what great literature can do – what we want it to do – planting the seeds for tomorrow’s innovative leaders.
I believe student readers can be inspired by the experiences of TsTs, Julia Song, and William Kamkwamba. I can’t predict which moment, which witty riposte, which colorful description, which perfect pithy turn of phrase, or what critical invention will be the spark for each of them. But I do know the seeds are here.
It may come from William Kamkwamba’s evocative memory of farming life in better times: “The rains made everything come alive. All across the region, the flowers bloomed and the forests and bushes blossomed. Everywhere you went, the land smelled rich and fragrant.”
Or from Mr. Maxwell’s encomium to living within the limits of the land and its resources: “I’m a grass farmer. That’s my main job – making sure the soil stays fertile so the grass grows well. The animals do everything else, and if we all do our jobs, the system sustains itself – it keeps going and going.”
Or it might come from a simple, pithy Lynne Rae Perkins squirrel neologism: “Squirrels are fleet, and life is fleeting, gather ye nuts and feast while ye may.”
When students read sentiments like these, they drink from the cup of John Muir and his resourceful heirs. One of those heirs, Rachel Carson, also wrote:
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history.”
To which I think we should generously add, that’s the aim of children’s literature, too.
Each April, National Poetry Month gives folks the opportunity to celebrate the importance of poetry and the poets whose works actively enrich our lives. Like any creative genre, poetry includes a plethora of themes and terminology to introduce to students. Poetry also presents a wondrous opportunity: the chance to build a bridge between reluctant readers and a love of books.
How can that bridge be poetry?
If you peer back through the door of childhood, it’s likely you memorized a nursery rhyme or six. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? The Itzy Bitzy Spider? How about Hey Diddle Diddle? (Just remembering these titles, you probably have more than one of them stuck in your head.) They’re short and their simple rhyme scheme makes them easy to recite and recall even years later.
For many of us, nursery rhymes naturally gave way to the witty, nonsensical tales of Dr. Seuss. From Green Eggs and Ham to The Cat in the Hat, to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and even Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, each is widely accessible in and out of the classroom. Children continue to love these books for their blend of sensibility and silliness, and may not even realize that Seuss’s playful rhyming and repetition helps develop speech and language skills. Seuss’s works also allow children to let loose with their vocabulary acquisition through creating new words like “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz” and “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” in a delightful sort of nonsense that’s sure to twist the tongue.
The first real foray into poetry that kids are likely to have is with Shel Silverstein, known for The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Falling Up. Like Dr. Seuss, Silverstein’s poems welcome kids into a world of quirky characters and outlandish tales. The prose is simple and straightforward, with ample joy and heart, too. There’s also a sense of respect woven through Silverstein’s work, an understanding that children need silliness and to have their unique view of the world honored. Take his poem, “Thumbs” for example:
Oh the thumb-sucker’s thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as snow,
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know).
There’s undeniable childlike humor, yes, but it doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence in the slightest. What all of these examples do best, though, are pique interest. Bigger than that – these forms are short, making them easily digestible to even the most bristling of readers.
You can throw even the most compelling of chapter books at a reluctant reader, but the amount of words on the page are still going to spook some of them. But kids who may shy away from a seemingly dense novel may be able to gravitate towards the ample white space around poetry stanzas.
Jason Reynolds – whose novels Ghost and Look Both Ways are available in Read to Them’s catalog– recognized this in a 2017 interview with PBS.
“For some kids,” Reynolds says. “Those words – the amount of words – is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the [pet store] window? In this case, poetry.”
But the power of poetry – and poets! – is that in spite of this white space, thanks to deft, careful word choice, a single poem can hold the punch of a full-length story.
Books written in verse, for instance, still contain vital literary elements – characters, plot, structure – while delving further into things like imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. Each serves as foundational bricks to a child’s developing reading comprehension and literacy skills.
“With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present,” Reynolds claims. “This is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia… And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.”
Read to Them has a number of novels in-verse as well as novels where poetry plays a major role within the text*. We invite you to use them as your building blocks for exploring poetry with readers of all ages. Check out the list below:
Love that Dog by Sharon Creech – Jack (the protagonist) doesn’t think he can write poetry – because that’s what girls do, not boys. This initial objection, however, is written in the form of a poem, as is every entry that follows. But as Jack’s poetry unit goes on, he finds himself inspired by the work of Walter Dean Myers and decides to write a poem of his own about his dog. Sharon Creech’s short, stunning stanzas beg readers to slow down and appreciate the beauties of poetry beyond the month of April.
Finding Langston by Lisa Cline-Ransome – While this isn’t a novel in-verse, the role of poetry is essential. Young Langston, who has just moved from Alabama to Chicago in the wake of his mother’s death, discovers the poems of his namesake – Langston Hughes. Readers will find themselves just as touched by Hughes’ poetry as young Langston is, and may just find a narrative window into their own lives, too.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – This Newbery Award-winning novel-in-verse brings readers to the basketball court, and into the lives of twin brothers, Josh and Jordan. When the bond between the brothers begins to unravel when Jordan meets a new girl in school, readers will find that the playbooks of basketball and life have more overlap than they might have thought possible, while Alexander’s poetry dazzles on the court and off.
Booked by Kwame Alexander – Nick is just like any other young teen: he loves soccer, he’s got a crush, and he’s trying to figure out what his future holds. However, when the dependable stability of Nick’s world starts to flounder, he finds himself struggling to stay afloat. Alexander’s poems briskly propel readers through the highs and lows of Nick’s life as he finds solace and solutions, even (unexpectedly) from the books recommended by a teacher who visits him in the hospital!
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – This memoir-in-verse paints a rich picture of the Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn of Jacqueline Woodson’s youth. Woodson steadily finds storytelling to be an essential part of herself, one that she is eager to share with the world. It’s a fully-realized dream, one that Woodson relays in gorgeous, varied, and layered poems that are sure to inspire readers to delve into their own sense of self-expression.
Harbor Me* by Jacqueline Woodson – Step into the ARTT Room – A Room to Talk. Though there are six middle school students featured in Harbor Me, the heart of the novel lies with Esteban. His father, who has been deported, shares poetry with Esteban that he translates into English to share with his friends. Using these poems as stepping stones, this unforgettable group of six is able to elevate their own feelings, stories, and secrets.
Flying Lessons, and Other Stories* by Ellen Oh – Among the small wonders of this collaborative work, you’ll find Kwame Alexander’s novella-in-verse, “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents.” This series of 31 poems introduces readers to Monk, a twelve year old boy who, in the wake of a car accident, develops the ability to read people’s minds. Dive into Alexander’s beautiful free verse (and one haiku) and get a taste of rhyme and anaphora, too!
Look Both Ways* by Jason Reynolds – Jason Reynolds masterfully guides readers through the lives of ten neighborhood kids as they leave school. Everyone has a different story to tell, and each is more complicated than it first appears. During Satchmo’s story, Reynolds employs a free-verse poem that brilliantly captures Satch’s anxiety about walking past a house with a ferocious dog. Readers will find each empathetic, humorous, and profound thread is woven into a lush quilt of interconnectedness.
If you read any of these titles to celebrate Poetry Month, be sure to share your photos with Read to Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy reading!