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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 8.40.07 PM
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 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: