When I read New Shoes several weeks ago, I knew I had to invite author, Susan Lynn Meyer to my blog. Susan takes a micro-fact in the history of the Jim Crow era and turns it into a story of resilience and courage in the face of injustice. New Shoes (illustrated are by Eric Velasquez) reminds us that injustice is never big or small, it’s simply wrong. And Susan reminds us that time travel through story can help readers, old and young, explore valuable – even if difficult – events of our ongoing history.
It’s with great pride that I welcome, Susan Lynn Meyer talking about her picture book New Shoes.
Time Travel for Kindergarteners
The past can feel impossibly remote to kids. I often tell my daughter stories about my own childhood, stories that feel quite immediate to me. I mean, how long ago was it that a certain boy used to torment me by following me home from school shouting “Hi Ugly”? How long ago was it that I found a small black dog asleep on a discarded mattress in our carport and persuaded my parents to keep her? I feel as if I could reach out my hand and touch those memories, as if I could blink and be there again.
But I realized something recently. Do you remember how long ago and far away your parents’ childhoods felt when you were growing up? That’s how long ago and far away—how almost unreal—our childhoods feel to kids now. “Really?” I want to protest. “It’s different because . . . .”
No, it isn’t different. Our pasts feel impossibly long ago to children now.
And the events that happened before even we, the adults, were born—that past can feel even more unimaginably far away.
How can young children travel in time? How can they feel what it was like to live in another era? Enter: THE HISTORICAL FICTION PICTURE BOOK!
If I were teaching an elementary grade, I’ve been thinking (I teach older students), I might decorate a time travel capsule for my class. You could make tickets for the box providing transport to particular eras.
You could have books at the ready that vividly represented life in that time—and maybe also a few appropriate artifacts to go along with each book. A child could reach in and pick out a ticket. And then it would be time to read aloud a book.
If the card said, for example, “1950s America,” you might read my newest picture book, New Shoes. Maybe you could show your class a pair of saddle shoes too. (Yes, they still make them! I found mine on Zappos—I wanted a pair to wear when I visit elementary schools to talk about my book.) Ella Mae, the main character in New Shoes, is an African-American girl who yearns for a new pair of saddle shoes for school—but getting them isn’t as wonderful as she had hoped.
I wrote New Shoes because I’d been reading about the Jim Crow South and I came across a fact that I hadn’t known before. Throughout the country, before the mid-sixties, in many stores African-American customers were not allowed to try on shoes before buying them. No trying on of clothes or hats either. And what if a black customer took the items home and they didn’t fit? No returns.
I was stunned by this fact and somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t known it. I wondered a lot about about what it would have been like to encounter this discriminatory practice for the first time. What would it have been like to be a child in a shoe store, watching white people try on shoes, eagerly waiting a turn—and then to discover that you couldn’t try on shoes yourself? That you were expected to trace your feet and accept the shoebox that was handed to you?
I mulled this over, and gradually the story of New Shoes shaped itself in my head. It is the story of Ella Mae, a girl who has this experience as her mother is buying her back-to-school shoes.
I imagined my way into Ella Mae’s life as well as I could. But I’m not black, and there’s no substitute for actual experience, so I asked some black friends to read an early draft of the manuscript. One told me that something felt off to her—that Ella Mae’s mother wouldn’t have stated point-blank that what had happened was wrong, as I had her doing in my early draft of the story. Instead she would have tried to protect her daughter by emphasizing the positive. I thought about my own older relatives, and I thought about how I behaved as a parent, and that comment felt so intuitively right to me. I changed the text (thank you, Anita!), and now the mother tells Ella Mae to think about how nice her feet will look for school.
But of course Ella Mae has paid attention what has happened. We try to protect our kids, but they live in the world and they notice everything.
So the hardest part about writing this story was coming up with an ending—one that was affirmative, yet realistic. Ella Mae can’t fix the problem of discrimination at the age of seven. What can she do?
I wrote twenty-three different versions of New Shoes over the course of several years. I wasn’t happy with any of them. Then one day I thought about how much my young daughter liked to play store and to sell things like lemonade at stands in front of our house. I thought too about the “clothing exchange” of second-hand clothes that used to take place in a town where I once lived, a common practice that dates back to the frugal days of the second world war. Things came together in my head, and suddenly I had my ending—one where Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte offer an alternative shoe shopping experience to people in their community. In Ella Mae and Charlotte’s shoe store, Ella Mae says proudly, the customers can “try on all the shoes they want.”
I’ll never forget some of the historical fiction (and nonfiction) my teachers read aloud to me. I have vivid memories of my fifth grade teacher reading aloud Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes and The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig. Listening to those books, the past came alive for me. Does my book New Shoes allow kindergarteners to experience time travel? To inhabit, however briefly, another person’s experience in another time and place? I hope so.
What are some of your favorite books for time travel?
Susan Lynn Meyer is the author of two picture books, New Shoes and Matthew and Tall Rabbit Go Camping. She is also the author of two middle-reader historical novels, Black Radishes (winner of the Sydney Taylor silver medal) and Skating with the Statue of Liberty (forthcoming from Delacorte in 2016), both inspired by her father’s experiences as a Jewish boy in France and then in America during World War II. She has taught middle school students and now teaches English and creative writing at Wellesley College.
And the reviewers agree.
“This simple, quiet story conveys the enduring bond between child and dog, with the added appeal of a joke that younger children just beginning to understand humor can enjoy.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Though ‘a boy and his dog’ may not be a groundbreaking theme, it’s often a popular one—and this gentle tale of friendship is no exception…. While this is a familiar story, it’s a well-executed and charming one.” —School Library Journal
As a picture book writer, I find it easy to get caught up in my own cleverness and lose the essence of a perfect story. So I was thrilled when Laurie agreed to stop by and share how she learned to peel away her text to find the story that kids will love.
Guest post by Laurie Ann Thompson
If writing has taught me anything at all, it’s that simple is almost always best. This is especially true when it comes to picture books.
I worked on my first picture book, Emmanuel’s Dream, for seven years before it finally sold. I researched, wrote, revised, research, wrote, revised, etc. It was nonfiction—a biography of a person who is still living—so I had to make sure every fact was accurate. The manuscript got longer and longer, then I had to cut it back down. Then it would get longer again, and I’d cut it again. I tinkered and tweaked until I thought I had it just right. But it wasn’t.
After a series of extremely complimentary rejections, I finally had a breakthrough. After 27 major revisions, I threw it all away. I started over from scratch, rewriting it from memory as almost a poem: lyrical, spare, focusing on the universal human emotions instead of the bounty of facts I had collected. Only then did it all come together, and that version sold fairly quickly. One thing people have told me over and over again about the final product is that they love how simple it is, and how the simplicity is what makes the story so powerful. I couldn’t have gotten to that simplicity without all the research and revising, but in the end I had to let it all go and just feel.
My newest picture book, My Dog Is the Best, comes out tomorrow. It has a very different story. It started out simple. It always had less than 100 simple words, less than half of which were unique. I wrote the manuscript for a course I was taking (Anastasia Suen’s Early Reader/Chapter Book Workshop), and part of the assignment was to write five goals for the manuscript. Here’s what I wrote back in 2009 for my goals:
• To make kids laugh.
• To write an engaging fictional story for beginning readers.
• To write a fictional story at an appropriate difficulty level for beginning readers.
• To use humor to encourage kids to read.
• To use the familiarity of a beloved family pet to encourage kids to read.
I thought I’d met my goals with the manuscript and really liked my draft, but I remember feeling embarrassed about turning it in. It was so simple… did it even count? I was used to writing longer, more complicated nonfiction with a purpose. This one was just a sweet, funny look at the bond between a young child and a beloved family pet. It didn’t feel like it could possibly be substantial enough to stand alone as a book.
I spent a lot of time stretching and struggling to add another layer to the concept to try to make it more serious. I tried to get clever with the original idea. I wanted readers (and reviewers) to be able to say, “Look what she’s doing here! Isn’t it impressive?” instead of, “Look how simple this is. I could’ve written that.”
After the manuscript sold, however, that extra layer I’d worked so hard to add was the first thing to go. My editor, Janine O’Malley at FSG, didn’t think it needed it. She wanted to keep it simple. Phew! Still, I worried what readers would think of the stripped down, simpler version.
A few weeks ago, I nervously read the final book aloud to a gymnasium full of children for the first time. The book’s text is nearly identical to my very first manuscript draft. The critics can say what they like, because the kids seemed to like it just the way it is. And so do I.
Now, you have a chance to win a signed (by both the author and the illustrator, Paul Schmid!) copy of the adorable My Dog is the Best along with some sensational swag. It’s easy! Simply enter below.
Also, you can follow Laurie on her blog tour:
Laurie Ann Thompson’s other books include Be a Changemaker and Emmanuel’s Dream. From the day she was born, many of her best friends have had four legs and fur. She now lives with her husband, two children, a grouchy cat, and a disabled dog in the Pacific Northwest. Visit her website at http://lauriethompson.com or follow her on Twitter at @lauriethompson.
Thank you, Laurie, for stopping by!
Today, I’m proud to feature another guest post by another amazing teacher. Heather Natale and her 2nd graders captivated me with their honest, deep and stunning free-verse poetry. This is an exercise to note and use over and over again in classrooms of any age as a perfect introduction into the depth and breadth of poetry beyond rhyme.
Guest post by Heather Natale
Student mirrored the first two lines of the book, “This is me. This is my universe” to create poems about special objects that took them to a place far away in their world.
Using wording from Light Up the Night as a guide, the students were encouraged to use descriptive words, strong language, and imagery to show the reader just how important that place in their universe was to them.
The students produced some fabulous poems and showed just how far your imagination can take you!
Objectives of this literacy activity:
– Students will identify an object and a place important to them
– Students will mirror a mentor text to find creative inspiration
– Students will describe a location using imagery, powerful language, and pertinent details
Heather Natale is a special education teacher at Dudley School in Fairport, New York. She works primarily with 2nd grade students in an integrated classroom. Mrs. Natale is married with two kids (Mia, 4 and Matteo, 2) who both want to be teachers like their Mommy!
One of the greatest pleasures of my school Skype visits is meeting amazing teachers. Susie Gruben, a first Grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is one such teacher. Take a look at how she used one simple picture book to touch on 8 – you heard me, 8! – academic standards. Oh, and by the way, she infused gobs of fun too! Thank you, Susie for sharing with us here!
Guest Post by Susie Gruben
My first grade class read TIME OUT FOR MONSTERS prior to Skyping with author, Jean Reidy. In the book, the boy gets sent to a “time-out” corner for his misbehavior. In that corner, he creates a place he wants to be.
After reading TIME OUT FOR MONSTERS, my class made a collaborative corner out of an appliance box. Each child dreamed of something they wanted to have in the corner and added it to the walls. As a class, we decided on the wall colors and painted them before gluing their images to the walls. For finishing touches, we added a comfortable pillow and some books.
The students decided that instead of having it be a “time-out corner” that they rather have it be a “time-in corner” to use when they needed some “snuggle, comfy” time. It’s a place the students want to be! Here’s how it turned out:
In addition, the students created their own triorama time-out corners. We constructed the trioramas out of stock paper, and then they decorated them to their liking. They also described their corners in a personal description. Here is an example of one triorama:
When we Skyped with Jean, she read the story to us again, and she shared some secrets about the book and how it was created. Then we were able to share our creations with her, and tell her our interpretations of the book.
These activities fulfilled the following first grade Common Core Reading, Writing and Communicating learning standards:
- Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (CCSS: SL.1.)
- Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade 1 topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups. (CCSS: SL.1.1)
- Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others with care, speaking one at a time about the topics and texts under discussion). (CCSS: SL.1.1a)
- Build on others’ talk in conversations by responding to the comments of others through multiple exchanges. (CCSS: SL.1.1b)
- Ask questions to clear up any confusion about the topics and texts under discussion. (CCSS: SL.1.1c)
- Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media. (CCSS: SL.1.2)
- Ask and answer questions about what a speaker says in order to gather additional information or clarify something that is not understood. (CCSS: SL.1.3)
- Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure. (CCSS: W.1.2)
For more ideas on using my picture books in the classroom see:
Tuesdays for Teachers: https://jeanreidy.com/category/tuesdays-for-teachers/ and
Time Out for Teachers: https://jeanreidy.com/schoolslibraries/time-out-for-teachers/
Interested in a virtual visit?
In my picture book LIGHT UP THE NIGHT, a child uses his imagination and his blanket to travel through his universe before bed. The child’s blanket, white and red, represents the themes of the book – security and a sense of place. By zeroing in on a significant object in their lives, students can explore the IDEA trait of writing.
- Read LIGHT UP THE NIGHT aloud slowly, giving students ample time to explore the illustrations.
- Note the endpapers of the story which mimic the color and pattern of the main character’s blanket.
- Browse the pages again, finding the red and white blanket on every page as the main character ventures through his universe.
- Ask students, “What is the main idea of this story? Is it really about a blanket?” Discuss how a symbol – like the blanket – can stand for a bigger idea. In this story, the bigger ideas or the themes of the book are security, home, and a sense of place. Ask students how the blanket was used to deliver those themes.
- Have students think about their own bedrooms, imagining the many objects they may keep there – on shelves, on their bed, in their closet, etc. Give them at least 5-minutes to tour their rooms slowly in their imaginations. Tell them to close their eyes and to try to see everything, every object.
- Have students zero in on one object that’s significant to them and have them write a brief journal entry describing the object and explaining why that item is significant.
- Then have students list emotions they associate with that object and after each emotion describe why.
- In LIGHT UP THE NIGHT, the main character’s blanket becomes a rocket, spaceship, truck, train, skateboard, etc. Ask students, “If your object came to life or transformed in some way, what would it do?” Then ask them to imagine their object “coming to life” or transforming in such a way that relates to the emotions listed above. For example, if the student is imagining a soccer trophy in her room, maybe the player on the trophy becomes the student, scoring the game winning goal. Or, let’s say the object is a photo of a grandparent. Maybe the student imagines that grandparent being right there with him or taking him on a trip.
- Using the journal entry, the emotion list and the “coming to life” activity, have students try to discover a theme – or bigger idea – tied to their object. It might be friendship or family or other special relationships. It might be fears or anticipation of growing up. It might be security. The list of themes is endless. Explain to students how the object then symbolizes their theme.
- Create a bulletin board with photos of all the student’s objects captioned with the “big ideas” associated with them.
This exercise fulfills learning standards for Writing and Literacy.
In my next Tuesdays for Teachers post, we’ll continue using this object study and LIGHT UP THE NIGHT as a mentor text for Word Choice.
Teachers! LIGHT UP THE NIGHT is now available at a special rate through the Scholastic Teacher Store! Order your copy right here: http://shop.scholastic.com/shop/en/teacherstore/Light-Up-the-Night.
Guest Post by Boni Hamilton
One of my best memories of childhood happened at a family friend’s country farmhouse during an unexpected snowstorm that stranded us. Imagine seven kids, chattering and giggling, snuggled together in a single bedroom. Either of my parents could have squelched the noise with a look, but our friends’ parents – they were pushovers! That’s when the magic happened. Our friends’ mother sat down, picked up a book, and started to read aloud. The room was instantly silent and I remember thinking I can’t go to sleep because I don’t want to miss a word even as my eyes fluttered and closed.
That’s the only time I remember someone reading to me until fifth grade. Then classmate Jack read the Enid Blyton adventure books aloud after lunch each day. He kept us glued to our seats!
March is read-aloud month. A free downloadable infographic at readaloud.org (http://www2.readaloud.org/importance) lists the academic and social benefits for children when parents read aloud for 15 minutes a day every day. Although they recommend reading aloud until children are age 10, I read aloud to my then-disengaged-reader daughter through high school. She is now an avid reader.
Teachers need to read aloud to children as well. As an educator who visits schools often, I have observed a disturbing decrease in the time devoted to reading aloud during the school day. In fact, I’ve learned that some principals prohibit their teachers from ever reading aloud to elementary children! Parents, educators, and author allies should be confronting such principals.
When books are read aloud in school, teachers have two possible approaches: efferent or aesthetic. Efferent reading is when the teacher is using the text to teach a concept. For example, a fourth grade math teacher read Gator Pie by Louise Mathews (1995) to her students to get them to visualize dividing a pie into halves, thirds, fourths, eighths, and hundredths. The read aloud had an academic, or efferent, purpose. Efferent readings are valuable for helping children visualize academic concepts, build background knowledge, identify literary elements (theme, figurative language, etc.), and recognize genres (mystery, non-fiction, historical fiction, etc.) and text conventions (table of contents, captions, etc.). Mentor texts for writing are efferent reading – students are looking at stylistic choices for the academic purpose of mimicking them.
Aesthetic readings have the purposes of igniting pleasure and imagination. The reader – a performer – shares the text and illustrations purely for enjoyment. This opens space for children to engage with the text from their own perspectives, to talk about their “wonderings” and “noticings.”
“What do you wonder? What do you notice?” These are the best questions a parent or teacher could ask while reading aloud a book. We adults are quick to draw attention to what we notice and wonder in a book, as though without our intervention children will miss something. But waiting for children to notice and wonder can give marvelous insights about their thinking. Here’s a transcript of one group of kindergarten children during an aesthetic reading of One Leaf Rides the Wind (2002) written by Celeste Mannis and illustrated by Susan Hartung. Students are looking at an illustration for the number six.
Brad: There’s six sandals. She’s holding part of them and part of them are on the ground.”
Lily: There’s more on the ground.
Levi: You can count them by 2’s.
Mark: There is two more kids inside.
Teacher: How do you know?
Mark: Because there are four shoes outside.
Teacher: How do you know they are kids’ shoes?
Mark: Because they are the same size as the girl’s.
Sarah: Why is she wearing socks with flip-flops?
Katie: I have a wondering. Why is she taking her shoes off in the garden?
Notice that although this is an aesthetic reading of the book, the children are making inferences and thinking about the illustration mathematically. The teacher’s questions are clarifying, not efferent.
A third grade teacher reads Letter from Rifka (1992) by Karen Hesse aloud each year during students’ study of immigration. On one level, this is an efferent reading, since the book provides students with insights about an immigrant girl’s experience in 1919. But the teacher chooses an aesthetic stance, and her students periodically stop the read-aloud to talk about what they “wonder” or “notice.” The students make the connections between what they are studying and the book, not the teacher.
Boni Hamilton thinks kids are great teachers — for one another and for adults. She has taught all ages (Pre-K – college); most disciplines, including special education, gifted programs, core content, technology, and art; in public and private schools for too many years to count. A perpetual learner, Boni is pursuing a second doctorate to learn how to help teachers work effectively in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. Her second book, Integrating Technology in the Classroom: Tools to Meet the Needs of Every Student, will be released this spring.
With older students, we usually talk more about writing and I often share with them my Top Ten Super Secret Writing Tips. We may do a group writing exercise or some project sharing.
So what is this “project sharing”?
Often in my Skype visits students will share artwork or writing or other projects they’ve created based on one of my books.
For example, a fifth grade classroom in Seattle did an full study of LIGHT UP THE NIGHT. And in that study they learned that my inspiration for the book came from my dear friends in Uganda and they asked why. And those same kids studied East Africa and discovered that safety and security and sense of place were the universal truths in the book and they researched why. Then they learned that the blanket, white and red, had great importance to the theme. And from all that, they created their own beautiful wall quilt that covered their entire room and they gave me a tour of it over Skype. AMAZING!
The list goes on and on.
But sometimes, their projects or writings have little nothing to do with any of my books. And that’s fine. Whether it’s art or poetry or stories or journal entries or essays, their work is all their own. And they share it with me. And I’m honored and privileged that they let me peek into their world for those few minutes.
When students share their work like this, I offer each of them my 30-second “What I love most …” critique. This is one of my favorite parts of the visit because it allows me to connect one-on-one with a student and honor their creativity. This isn’t an “every kid gets a trophy” shout out. This is me, letting a brave young author or artist or poet know that someone sees him, hears him, respects his work and applauds his willingness to create and share – in public. That deserves celebration, don’t you think?
Interested in a virtual visit?
FUN = Attending a “Things That Go” story time at the amazing Koelbel Public Library and watching the hilarious and energetic librarian, Lori Noreen, bring ALL THROUGH MY TOWN – and many more wonderful picture books – to life.
What would students like to see outside their windows?
Let them draw their dream views on square-shaped pieces of paper. When they’re finished, let them add a paper window frame and panes with thin strips of brown paper and stick glue.
Challenge. How many squares are in each window? (Answer: Five! There are four small squares in each pane and one large square for the entire window.) How many rectangles are there? (Four: Two panes make one rectangle; there are two vertical and two horizontal rectangles.) For older students. point out that squares are also rectangles, which will increase the number of rectangles found in the window.
Our Point of View!
Windows into Our Imaginations!
or something similar.
1st and 3rd graders at Verne W. Critz Elementary in New York state did this as a buddy activity in preparation for my Skype visit. During the visit, we read TIME OUT FOR MONSTERS! again and I shared with them some picture book secrets. But the highlight came when they each showed me their “Window” and read me their stories about their windows, based on the book.
It turned out, many window views had at least one thing in common – CUPCAKES!
Give it a try with your class.
- Students will describe objects in the environment using names of shapes.
- Students will correctly name shapes regardless of their orientation and overall size
In the world of picture book writing, much attention is given to idea generation. But so little is said about the actual process of writing the book. Today, friend and fellow author, Anna Staniszewski, shares her journey from a nugget of an idea – a brilliant one at that – and the dreaming, building and layering that became her latest adorable picture book, POWER DOWN LITTLE ROBOT. Thanks for stopping by, Anna!
Developing an Idea into a Story
I admit it. I have no problem coming up with ideas. Granted, most of them are the “wouldn’t it be funny if…?” type of ideas that aren’t actually stories. Yes, it would be funny (at least to me), but why should anyone pay the money to have my idea illustrated and put into a book? The idea must have some meat to it, and it needs an emotional component as well. Otherwise, it’s still only an idea.
When I first came up with the concept for Power Down, Little Robot, (while I was going to sleep one night and announced to my husband, in a robot voice, that I was “initiating sleep mode”) I immediately thought of several possibilities for where the story could go. That meant I was on the right track. Not only was this a fun idea, but it was one that might actually go somewhere.
I still needed a plot, though. Unlike the other picture books I had worked on until that point (one of which had sold to a publisher several months earlier) this one seemed like it wasn’t going to have a traditional story arc. Instead, it was going to be more of a concept book about avoiding bedtime. I also vaguely knew that I wanted it to be about the relationship between a mother and son.
Okay, I had the concept and the format, but I still needed to flesh out my idea. It was time to do some research. I called on my trusty parent friends to help me come up with a list of ways that kids try to get out of going to bed. Then I spent hours figuring out how to translate those child behaviors into robot ones. (What would a robot have nightmares about? Rust monsters, of course!) I also had to figure out other robot details, like where a robot sleeps. A closet? A garage? I finally settled on a sleep module.
Once I had the robot elements worked out, there was still the matter of the emotional heart of the story. This emotional component is what gives your fun idea depth and makes it resonate with readers. If your idea doesn’t imply an emotional experience then it will be difficult to turn it into a satisfying story.
As I mentioned above, I wanted the relationship between robo-mom and robo-son to be an important part of the story. With that in mind, I went through each spread and strengthened their relationship so that it helped to move the story forward. Of course Mom Unit is frustrated with Little Robot for not wanting to go to sleep, but she also cares about him. Of course Little Robot wants to stay up late, but he also feels safe and cozy with his mother.
Finally, after several revisions with critique partners and then with my agent, it felt like the story had rising action, humor, and, most importantly, heart. Only then did I feel like my idea had become more than simply an idea. It had turned into a story.
Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and eating far too much chocolate. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, the Dirt Diary series, and the forthcoming Switched at First Kiss series, all published by Sourcebooks, as well as the picture book Power Down, Little Robot, coming from Henry Holt in March. Visit her at www.annastan.com.