Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: How to Be an Elephant

The hardest part of writing is sitting down to write.

Years ago, I watched a masterful literacy coach* tell my second grade students that ideas are like bubbles. They sat transfixed as she blew a stream of bubbles into the air and explained that our ideas could float away, just like those bubbles.   She then presented them with sticky notes and made them promise to write their ideas down so they wouldn’t float away.

For me lately, the hardest part of writing has sitting down to write.  Ideas have popped into my head over the past ten months, but I’ve let them all float away, just like those bubbles. No more! This month, this year, I’m committing to grabbing onto my ideas and holding on tight.

Getting Inspired: Elephants and Caldecotts

Last year I was introduced to the absolutely enthralling Elephants: A Book for Children by Steve Bloom (photographs) and David Henry Wilson.   It captivated students and teachers alike with its stunning photographs and truly informative and surprising text.  I’ve always liked elephants, but after reading this book, a number of us in our school community bordered on obsessed.

caldecott medalFast forward to December 2017 when I stumbled across Katherine Roy’s  How to Be an Elephant in a list of Caldecott Medal contenders.  Elephants and Caldecotts?  Two of my favorite things! I ordered a copy and was rewarded with one of the best nonfiction titles I’ve read in long time.  I was finally inspired enough to grab onto some ideas and write them down for you!

Book Spotlight

If you’ve read my blog in the past year, you’ll know that in my book spotlights, I share a title and recommend some ways you might use the book.  I believe text selection is a critical element to good instruction.  My goal is helping you find the right book, right when you need it, for exactly the right skill or topic you need.

So onto the book!How to be an elephant

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild begins with the birth of new baby elephant.  We follow as she learns…how to be an elephant!  As she learns to walk, to use her sense of smell, to use the various functions of her versatile nose, and as she develops her vocabulary of sounds, we learn about each of those topics as well.  Roy takes us through this elephant’s life, mixing the story of the baby elephant with expository spreads.

What really makes this book special are the illustrations.  It’s definitely my pick for Caldecott!  Roy juxtaposes beautifully broad-stroked illustrations of the baby elephant and her family with precisely detailed pictures, diagrams, close-ups, and cross-sections that teach about each aspect of the elephant’s life and body.  The two illustration styles work perfectly together to help students navigate the two text styles: narrative nonfiction and expository text.

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My favorite spread from the book combines the creative depiction of the trunk’s functions on the left with the beautiful illustration of elephants using their trunks on the right.

How can you use this book with students? While there are many options, several jumped out at me.  Here we go:

Main Ideas and Text Structure

  • The text follows a chronological/life cycle text structure. We begin with the birth of the female baby elephant and end with the birth of her son.  I might use this book to both notice text structure and to analyze how text structure reveals the main ideas of a text.
  • The headings of each section reveal the main topic of the section and should help students determine the main ideas of those sections.  Students could then practice finding the main idea of the entire text by looking across the main ideas of each section.
  • For students ready for a challenge: Why did the author choose to use a narrative nonfiction style alongside expository sections?  What does this accomplish?

Text Features

  • Each expository section is accompanied by a beautifully drawn text feature–often a diagram, close-up, or cross-section.  Students could work to discuss how these features contribute to or clarify the accompanying text.
  • Roy’s headings are often plays on words, but also often reveal more about the main idea of the section.  Students could explore how the headings help them determine the main idea of the section.Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 8.57.43 PM


  • Students will have lots of elephant-specific vocabulary that they’ll need to use context to define.  I, for one, learned that elephants’ trunk whiskers are called “vibrissae.”
  • Tier 2 vocabulary words are scattered plentifully across Roy’s descriptive text and will provide opportunities for teachers to work with students on adopting new vocabulary that will help them speak well about the topic.  Think: grasping, amplification, nourishment, radiate, and vibrations.

Let’s Love on Some Nonfiction

If you don’t read How to Be an Elephant for any of those reasons, you should just read it for the love of reading.  I don’t think kids ever get enough just-for-fun read alouds of nonfiction texts.  (I also discovered another of Roy’s books, Neighborhood Sharkswhich I can highly recommend for this purpose!)  Also, get that other elephants book I mentioned.  You won’t regret it.


To elephant obsessions and catching our idea bubbles before they float away,

Emily @pickofthelit


*My coach was Kate Franz.  She’s brilliant.  You should follow her.


Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: A Bike Like Sergio’s

I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t love Maribeth Boelts’s classroom classic, Those Shoes (Candlewick, 2007).  I’ve never had a group of students that didn’t cringe in deepest sympathy and embarrassment when Jeremy has to wear the “Mr. Alfrey shoes.” I’ve never seen a group of teachers and students who can’t talk on and on about why Jeremey really gives those cool shoes to Antonio.  It’s the best kind of book–one teachers and students are equally excited to be reading.

Boelts hits the same notes of pleasing teachers and students with A Bike Like Sergio’s (Candlewick, 2016). Students and teachers alike will connect with Ruben, who is desperate for a bike like the one his friend Sergio has. One day Ruben picks up a what he thinks is a dollar dropped by a lady in a store. It turns out to be a one hundred dollar bill. He’s rich!  With various twists and turns, Ruben loses the money, finds it again, and ultimately figures out the right thing to do.

This relatable book is sure to hook kids (there were audible gasps in second grade when Ruben realized the dollar was really a hundred dollars).  It’s also a versatile title for teaching reading comprehension skills.  Just as I did with my spotlight on The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, I will break down possible uses for this text across Jennifer Serravallo’s categories:

  • Plot and Setting
  • Characterfullsizerender-11
  • Vocabulary and Figurative Language
  • Themes and Ideas

I stickied up the text at moments that seemed to lend themselves to teaching in a particular area and compiled my list. New for this post, I also put together a menu of Text-Dependent Questions to use with this book.

Plot and Setting

  • There is more than one problem in this story and students will have to sift through the smaller problems (not having a bike, losing the money) to to realize the big issue is Ruben’s internal struggle over the money he finds.
  • Students will have to follow some small shifts in time, but all places would be familiar enough to most students to not present a challenge.


  • Character background is revealed through dialogue. A conversation between Ruben and Sergio implies that Sergio’s family has money but Ruben’s does not.  Understanding this is crucial to understanding the story.FullSizeRender 26
  • Across the text, students will need to infer Ruben’s thoughts and motivation.  Once he has the dollar he doesn’t tell his parents.  He pretends to be asleep when Dad gets home. Why?
  • The lady who drops the money and Ruben’s parents don’t play enormous roles in the story, but as secondary characters they do influence Ruben’s feelings and ultimately his actions.
  • Ruben feels complex and conflicting emotions upon taking the money and upon giving it back.  If you are working on going beyond “happy” and “sad”, this book presents a perfect gateway to “guilt”and “uneasiness.”FullSizeRender 29.jpg

Vocabulary and Figurative Language

  • I just love this page. “She walks her fingers through the cash in her wallet. Then she crosses things off.”

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  • Similes:
    • “I squeeze my eyes shut and stay still as stone.”
    • “And like a hot blast, I remember how it was for me when that money was hers -then mine-was gone.”
    • “…the words bust loose like they’ve been waiting.”
  • When Ruben loses the money: “Leaves and money look the same. Rain and tears feel the same.”

Themes and Ideas

  • This is a great book for taking students from surface level lessons to more meaningful lessons.  Some students may initially say the lesson of this text is that you shouldn’t steal, but when they dig in, they’ll realize this book is really about doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.
  • As is often the case, an older, wiser character states the lesson explicitly, as a “pearl of wisdom” if you will.

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Do yourself a favor and read this one.  Read it just to enjoy it, then read it to grow stronger readers.

Posted in Thematic Spotlights

Mirrors and Windows

Current events have me thinking so much about books as mirrors and windows.  Rudine Sims Bishop first wrote about this idea in 1990:

 Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.

Throughout my teaching career,  I’ve concentrated more on mirrors than windows. I’ve always taught in schools where most of the students are African American, and finding lots books that are mirrors hasn’t been easy. I’ve worked hard to find books in which my students would be able to see reflections of their own lives.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about windows and doors part of Bishop’s metaphor. She goes on in a paragraph that feels as if it could have been written today:

Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves.  If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world – a dangerous ethnocentrism.

In a time when our country is filled with such xenophobic, ignorant, and flat-out-false rhetoric about people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, teachers (and parents) have a responsibility.

We pick the books our students hear.

We decide if they see windows, or only mirrors.

We decide where those windows face.

So let’s lead our students to these windows, throw them open, and cry, “Look!  There are people out there!”  For surely, by looking through these windows at stories of people of different races, ethnicities, and religions, our children  will develop greater empathy for all people.

So today, I want to share with you some of my favorite books that feature Muslim characters.

I chose books that take place in the United States and around the world.  I also chose some books whose plots center around war and the struggle of refugees and other books whose plots center around lollipops, friendship, and family dynamics.   The variety is important; we don’t want students to think the view from one window is the singular story of a people.


Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

This is really a story about sisters and empathy.  Rubina is invited to a birthday party.  Her mother insists she take her younger sister along, even though Rubina insists that is not how things are done here.  Both girls learn lesson about empathy.



One Green Apple by Eve Bunting

Farah is the new kid at school, struggling with the language and getting to know her new country.  A field trip to the apple orchard reveals some of the ways her new country is similar to her home country–and reveals some of her new classmates as friends.



The Roses in my Carpets by Rukhsana Khan

A young boy describes his life in an Afghan refugee camp with his sister and mother where his only reprieve is learning to weave.




King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan (can you tell I’m a fan?)

Malik is a kite fighter celebrating Basant.  He takes down the kites of the bully next door–only to have the bully reappear, taking the kite of a little girl. This book tells the story of Malik’s generosity and of a centuries old festival.



Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

Lailah has moved from Abu Dhabi to Georgia, and is going to fast for Ramadan for the first time.   She worries that the other students won’t understand, but with help from her teacher and her librarian, she comes up up with a solution.



What other titles would you add to this list?


Reference: Bishop, Rudine Sims.  The Ohio State University. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”  Originally appeared in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1990.
Posted in Thematic Spotlights

Favorite Fall Read Alouds

I gotta say, I’m not really a pumpkin spice girl, but I LOVE FALL.   The beautiful leaves, the crisp air, college football, and, of course, the BOOKS.

Today’s post is just a quick hit: my favorite books for fall!

         The Fierce Yellow Pumpkin    A Margaret Wise Brown classic with gorgeous language and illustrations.


Room on the Broom – Julia Donaldson’s (author of The Gruffalo) playful and rhyming adventure with a charming witch.  Bonus: Amazon Prime streams a great video version of this book!


Grow Your Own Soup by John Malam is an unique take on the traditional pumpkin book, as the title implies.



Pumpkins by Ken Robbins uses beautiful photography to illustrate the life cycle of the pumpkin.


Lois Ehlert’s gorgeous collages delight little readers who eagerly point out the shapes the leaves make in Leaf Man.
Kids will definitely relate to Harriet and her desire to keep her candy to herself in Harriet’s Halloween Candy by Nancy Carlson.


What are your favorite books for fall?  Leave them in the comments!

Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Vocabulary in Informational Text

Sound familiar?  Students give an example or a description when you ask what a words mean.  Yeah, a chrysalis is a chrysalis that the butterfly wraps up in!  You know they have the right idea, but they can’t quite get it out.

Defining new vocabulary is something that can be difficult for elementary students. Often, instead of a definition we get a description or an example, as seen above. Much like my skill spotlight on retelling, this is a skill that seems easier than it actually is.

The way informational texts deal with vocabulary varies widely.  When students struggle with this skill, choosing the right texts becomes very important. Today we’ll take a look into tiers of vocabulary and choosing texts to support students

Tiers of Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards Appendix A discusses the three tiers of vocabulary.  All three tiers are vital to reading comprehension, but “learning tier 2 and tier 3 words typically requires more deliberate effort…” (Appendix A).screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-4-01-57-pm-1

The standards call for special attention to Tier 2 words.  These are words that are used across content and topics and are generally not defined in context, making them both more usable in daily life, and harder to figure out.  (That’s a post for another day!)

Beginning in second grade though, the standards also call for students to be able to determine the meaning of Tier 3, or domain-specific, vocabulary words.

How do I pick books for tier three vocabulary practice?

If you’re starting to pick up a theme for this blog, you know that I’m going to say text selection matters.  Just handing students any old nonfiction text when they are struggling with defining tier three words isn’t nearly deliberate enough on our part.

How tier three words appear in the text makes a huge difference in the level of effort required to determine their meanings.


Here are some common scenarios in which tier three vocabulary appears, listed from easier scenarios to harder.

Definition appears in a text box on the same page that the word is found in context:The definition is stated explicitly, so students don’t have to infer what a word means from context.  For most students, this makes this a fairly easy scenario in which to define a new word.  (Keep in mind, though, that for students who tend to skip over text features, this would be a more difficult scenario).

In this example from the National Geographic Kids book Planets by Elizabeth Carney, many domain-specific words are defined in text boxes nearby.

Embedded definition in context with picture support:  While students still don’t have to infer a definition, typically these definitions are contained in clauses within a complex sentence.  Navigating this sentence structure can create more of a challenge, however, pictures that give a visual of the new word can compensate for this.

In this example from Nic Bishop’s Butterflies and Moths, the sentence contains a definition (“a long feeding tube”) and the picture also shows a clear picture of the proboscis.

Embedded definition without picture support: Just like in the example above, students don’t have to infer a definition, but they do have to navigate trickier sentence structure, except this time, without picture support.

In Dolphin Talk Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping Jaws by Wendy Pfeffer, the definition is embedded in the sentence, but the pictures isn’t much help.

Definition can be inferred from context and picture support:  This scenario is slightly harder.  The sentence doesn’t define the word directly, but contains information that would help the reader infer a definition.  The picture also contains helpful information that would support students in their attempt to define the word.

In looking at this example from the prolific Bobbie Kalman’s Tadpoles to Frogs, students could infer that gills are  a body part on a tadpole that help it breathe under water.

Definition can be inferred from context (no picture support):

Nic Bishop writes about butterflies again in an easier reader for Scholastic called simply Butterflies.  While the text level is easier than Butterflies and Moths, in this example readers have to rely on context alone to define molt.

Use of a glossary is necessary*:  In a big ol’ pile of nonfiction ranging from first to fifth grade levels, I couldn’t find an example of a tier three word that could ONLY be defined using the glossary.  I did find, though, that some tier two words fit this scenario.  This is tough because readers have to realize a word is new to them, check for clues on the page where the word is located, then check for a glossary.


In these examples, from the Pebble Plus book Ants and Their Nests by Linda Tagliaferro, the context and picture don’t support defining the tier two word “chambers” but the glossary contains a definition.

What are your best tips for helping students with new vocabulary in nonfiction text? Leave them in the comments!

Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: The Quickest Kid in Clarksville

I cannot believe that it is October and that I haven’t posted in a month! September seemed to fly by and took summer with it. Now that my television is teeming with political ads, I find myself wishing for the simple pleasures of August’s summer Olympics.  Luckily, I have the perfect book to get my fix.

In the first of what I hope will be a regular feature, I plan to shine the spotlight on an individual book, highlighting different skills and standards to which the book lends itself particularly well.

Since this is the first post of its kind, I thought I’d start by telling you how I go about deciding what I might be able to use a book for.  I bucket my thoughts into four categories, taken from Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and The Reading Strategies Bookplot and setting, character, vocabulary and figurative language, and themes and ideas.  I give each category a different color sticky and I get going.   I read the book four times through, each time through the lens of a different category and with a different color sticky in hand.fullsizerender-11

In the end, I have loads of ideas for how I might use the text, and the book ends up looking something like this:fullsizerender-13

So, onto the book spotlight!  The Quickest Kid in Clarksville was written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison.    Alta is a girl growing up in Clarksville, Tennessee, which just happens to be the hometown of Olympic runner (and gold medalist), Wilma Rudolph.  It’s 1960 and Clarksville is throwing a parade in celebration of Wilma’s gold medals.  Alta knows she’s the quickest kid in town, just like Wilma, that is until Charmaine comes into the picture.   She’s got fancy shoes and fast feet.   Eventually, on the day of the parade, Alta, Charmaine, and their friends run the relay race of their lives to get a banner to the parade on time.

So, how could you use this book?

When I finished stickying up the book, I noticed just how many pink stickies I had (vocabulary and figurative language).
The book is just crying out to be used with standard RL.2.4: Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

fullsizerender-12The author repeats the name “Wil-ma Ru-dolph. Wil-ma Ru-dolph,” every time the characters are running, giving their feet a beat.  She also repeatedly uses two word fragments across different pages to create a mood and a sense of rhythm  (“Arms moving.  Legs grooving,” and “Bodies lunge.  Feet tangle,” and “Feet dragging.  Head hanging.”)   This isn’t the easiest standard to match texts to and this book was positively made for it.

How else could you use this book?

Plot and Setting

  • Setting affects the plot: It matters that this story takes place in Clarksville in 1960.
  • Multiple problems: Alta has the conflict with Charmaine about who is the fastest runner, she has the problem of not having new shoes and much money, and finally the problem of getting the banner to the race on time.   Each of these ends up affecting what the character learns in the end.
  • Passage of time: Midway through the story the line, “When parade day dawns…” tells the reader that it is now the next day.
  • Identify the narrator: This story is told in the first person from Alta’s perspective.  (This also makes it a great mentor for personal narrative!)
  • Unassigned dialogue: At various points, readers need to use what is happening in the story to figure out who is speaking.


  • Infer character’s feeling: Much of what Alta is feeling must be inferred through what she says, thinks, or does, or through her facial expressions in the rich illustrations.  There are opportunities for students to go beyond “happy” or “sad” to more rich feeling words.
  • Character comparisons: Alta and Charmaine have more in common than they have differences.  They don’t see their similarities, but skillful readers will.
  • Feeling change: Alta’s feelings change about Charmaine and about herself throughout the story.  Readers will have to identify when those feelings change, how they changed, and why they changed.

Vocabulary and Figurative Language

  • Repetition and rhythm: As described above, this book is perfect for analyzing how and why authors use repetition of words, phrases, or even sentence structure.
  • Simile: There are fantastic similes in this book!  (“I puff up like a spitting cat,”  “I leap after her like a scalded frog,” and so many more).
  • Other figurative language: When describing her old sneakers, Alta laments that they have “laces that never thought to glimmer.”

Theme and Ideas

  • Lesson revealed through an “Aha Moment”: Alta realizes that shiny shoes don’t matter as long as she has her feet.  Readers will have to work to think about what this really means
  • Character change reveals lesson: Alta changes her attitude towards Charmaine and in doing so gets the banner to the parade on time–also learning something about teamwork.
  • Cross-genre work: Using Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull, readers can work to compare the lessons learned from Wilma Rudolph’s real life to the lessons learned from this work of fiction.


I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!   Happy Reading!


Posted in Thematic Spotlights

Books Kids Can’t Help Chiming In On

There is joy in collective experiences.  Cheering at a football game, singing along at a concert–there’s something special about a group of voices joining in unison and ringing out together.

While our classrooms might not be stadiums of 75,000 people, there is a similar joy in the the collective experience of 25 little voices ringing out with mine in shared reading.

Shared Reading was developed by New Zealand educator Don Holdaway as an interactive reading experience in which students chorally read an enlarged text, guided and supported by a teacher or other fluent reader. Holdaway (1979) describes shared reading as

“the unison situation properly controlled in a lively and meaningful spirit, [which] allows for massive individual practice by every pupil in the teaching context” (p. 129).

Shared reading is often conducted with an entire text, but it doesn’t have to be.  Many children’s books contain a repeated refrain that can be used for shared reading.  Teachers can chart that refrain and refer to it for shared reading when it occurs in the text. This type of text lends itself particularly well to creating that “lively and meaningful spirit” to which Holdaway refers.

These perfect-for-shared reading picture books contain repeated refrains that kids just can’t help chiming in on.

Mortimer by Robert Munsch

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The Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone

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Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells

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Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen

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What other titles should be added to this list?  Leave ’em in the comments!

References: Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic
Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Retelling

Retelling is a perfect skill to work on at the beginning of the school year. It’s the foundation for so much of the deeper comprehension work that you’ll do as the year goes on.  Sometimes, though, getting kids to retell can feel like pulling teeth.  (Just say what happened!   Just tell it in order!)

When this happens, the cause often comes down to our text selection (our own pick of the lit, you might say.)

Children’s literature often seems deceptively simple.  However these books, like all narrative text, can be organized with a wide variety of plot structures.  The more complex the plot structure, the harder the text will be to retell.

Take, for instance, Vera B. William’s A Chair for My Mother.  Its 32 pages and brightly colored illustrations might make it seem uncomplicated.  But in these 32 pages, readers must navigate a flashback, as the narrator remembers when the family’s old apartment burned down.  The action then returns to the present and the quest for the chair.  This text might present the first opportunity some students will have navigating a text that doesn’t follow a chronological timeline.  Retelling here would require students to have understood that the story went back in time and returned to the present, and then to be able to reorganize that information in order to retell.

26502934915_d094068906_bRobert McCloskey’s classic Blueberries for Sal is another text that appears simpler than it actually is.  We could call this a “meanwhile” story.  McCloskey alternates between telling us what Sal and her mother are doing and what the baby bear and the baby bear’s mother are doing.  All of the action is happening simultaneously, but is relayed separately, presenting a challenge for a reader who must retell what Sal was doing and, meanwhile, what the baby bear was doing.  Not so easy.

 As teachers, then, text selection is key to the success of any reading lesson in which we aim to teach retelling.   We must examine books with the lens of plot organization and choose according for our students’ needs.  If students struggle, we should treat plot structure as a continuum along which we can move students in their retelling work, moving from the most basic structures to the more complex.

Here is a list of some plot structures commonly found in picture books, arranged from easiest to most difficult, along with titles that fit the category. Use these lists to guide your students to become master retellers!

1. Beginning, Repetitive Pattern, Ending

This is the most simple of narrative structure, and thus the simplest to retell.  The story begins, something keeps on happening, then something might change to bring about the ending.  Many early readers follow this structure, making the text predictable to decode and the plot easier to hold on to. Beginning

Books that follow this plot structure:

2. Rising Action-simple

story mountainAfter students have mastered the retelling of the “beginning, repeating pattern, ending” retell, they will be ready to retell stories with a simple problem/solution structure, also referred to as a Rising Action structure, represented in the image to the left.  The mountain itself is lopsided, because so much more of a story is generally dedicated to the rise up to the problem and the attempts to solve it, than to the resolution of the story.  The vast majority of children’s stories follow this plot structure.  Variability for difficulty might come in the length of the “seeds of trouble” and “attempts to fix the problem” sections of the plot.

Books with a simple rising action structure:

3. Rising Action -complex

These stories share a similar structure to the rising action-simple stories above, but that story mountain might have a few more peaks and valleys on the way up or down.  You might even be climbing two mountains at once (hello, subplots!).  These would be our stories with flashbacks, flashforwards, or large jumps in time,  our “meanwhile” stories, stories with parallel plots, subplots, or stories with multidimensional problems.   These could each have their own category, but for the purpose of picking books for retelling, if the text you are considering has any of these, know that it is going to present a deeper challenge.

Books with a complex rising action structure:

Posted in Thematic Spotlights

The Best Books for Back to School

The first weeks of school are tough.   We’re tired.  The kids are tired.  We’re trying to get 20, 25, 30 (or more!) small people to move in a common direction, both physically and mentally.  The expression “herding cats” floats through our brains with frightening frequency.  We’re trying to set up routines and procedures that will keep our kids safe  and productive all year, and at the same time, we are trying to establish warm, engaging classroom culture where every student feels known and loved.


This is why, for me, Read Aloud is so important in the first weeks of school.  It’s the time when kids can relax a bit, not having to worry about the right way to head a paper, get into a line, or ask for a new pencil.  They know what to do during a read aloud.

It’s also so important because we use stories to create a vision of what we want our classroom communities to be.  A place where Lilly can make mistakes and fix them with an apology and an interpretive dance.  A place where Swimmy learns that teamwork can you get out of a tough spot.  A place where EVERYONE can learn to ride a bicycle (or cement their growth mindsets, at least).

So, with that, here is the non-exhaustive list of the best books for back to school!

Growth Mindset

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle feels like it was written for the exact purpose of introducing the idea of growth mindset and persistence to children.  It chronicles the journey of an unnamed character learning to ride a bicycle.  There are small successes and many bumps in the road, but in the end with continued practice and hard work, it happens!

You’ll undoubtedly ask your students to do many things that won’t come easily this year.  Make this little cyclist your mascot, and you’ll remind students that even when things get bumpy, persistence will lead to success.  (Bonus Book: If you want to teach students how their brains develop and learn new things, I suggest Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD.)


We dream of classrooms where our students not only notice each other’s feelings, but also take great care with them.  We know, though, that this is not always their first instinct.  Leonardo can relate.

In Mo Willems’ Leonard0 the Terrible MonsterLeonardo dreams of being a truly terrible, terrifying monster.  He is not.  He develops the ingenious plan of finding the biggest scaredy-cat of a kid and scaring the “tuna salad out of him.”   It turns out that this is not quiet as satisfying as Leonardo would have hoped.  He makes the decision to be not a terrible monster, but instead, a really good friend.  Let’s all be like Leonardo.

Learning to Read (and more Growth Mindset!)

Much like Leonardo, the titular character in Becky Bloom’s Wolf!  wants to scare the other characters in the book.  Unfortunately for him, the farm animals who are his targets are too busy reading to pay his scary howls any mind.   Wolf decides he will also learn to read.

It is a slow process in which Wolf returns to the farm several times before he truly proves himself a reader. Wolf struggles to read complex words, read at an appropriate rate, and read with the expression of a storyteller.   With practice in school, at the library, and with his very own storybook, he gets it.    Students will be able to relate!

Making Mistakes

 Lilly.  Oh, how I love Lilly.  In Kevin Henke’s classic, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly struggles to delay the gratification of showing off her new purple plastic purse (it plays music for cryin’ out loud!).    When her teacher Mr. Slinger holds onto to it for her, she takes some regrettable action in retribution.

Lilly makes a mistake, but Mr. Slinger accepts her apology and suggests, yes, an interpretive dance that makes everyone feel better. If only all classroom conflicts were resolved thus!   Use this book to normalize the making of mistakes, and to build the understanding that we can always fix our mistakes.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Leo Lionni’s Swimmy is the story of a little black fish who uses quick thinking and his own unique characteristics to rally a school of little red fish to fend off a big, bad predator.

Use this book to help students understand that being different can be a good thing, and that working together can make even the the most insurmountable problems solvable.

Happy Reading and Happy Back to School to all!




Posted in About Me


What is Pick of the Lit?   Well, have you ever been in the midst of lesson planning, reaching for a Diet Coke, when you suddenly think out loud, “I wish I had the perfect book to teach kids to determine character traits!”?  Or maybe, between handfuls of Cheez-its and Boom Chicka Pop, you start wishing, “Man, what might be the perfect book for introducing symbolism to fourth graders?”

Yeah? Me, too.  And it’s not just you and me. In fact, back in April, my friend Becky (first grade teacher) sent me this text:

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This really got me thinking. What if there was a place you could look for the perfect book with an empathetic character?   (Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts is magnificent!).  What if there was a place to find a great book for introducing symbolism to fourth graders?  (Pop’s Bridge by Eve Bunting.  That puzzle piece is more than a puzzle piece!).

Finding the right book at the right time for the particular literacy skill you’re trying to teach?  That’s Pick of the Lit.   Thanks for joining me.