Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Picture-Book Biographer Sets the Record Straight

I thoroughly enjoyed the AASL meetings last week in Hartford.  I went to several author panels.  It’s always fun to put a face and voice to an author’s name, and to hear their thoughts about the craft.  Among the highlights was a panel on picture book biography, skillfully moderated by Mary Ann.  I was dazzled by how much effort goes into a top-notch picture book biography, as shown in an anecdote that Matt Tavares related about his research.  He was working on Hank Aaron’s Dream, and had decided to feature a well-known story about Ted Williams and Aaron.  Here’s how Tavares tells it on his website (

He was a 20-year-old minor leaguer, traveling with the big-league Braves during spring training in 1954, playing the last few innings of each game. Then on March 13, the Braves' starting left-fielder, Bobby Thomson, broke his ankle during a spring training game. The very next day, on March 14, the Braves played the Boston Red Sox in Sarasota, and Henry Aaron was the new starting left-fielder for the Braves. He hit a home run that day, and the sound of his bat hitting the ball was so spectacular that the great Red Sox superstar Ted Williams came running out from the clubhouse to see who had hit that ball.

It’s a terrific story, verified in Aaron’s autobiography and an article by Williams.  But when Tavares wanted the illustration to include the line-up for the game, he tracked it down in digital newspaper archives.  That’s when the whole story started to unravel: the date was wrong and Ted Williams was in a hospital in Boston during that game.  Tavares’s detective work, as he calls it, changed how he told the story in the book, of course. 

What a tribute to the attention to detail in today’s best nonfiction.  And to cap it off, Tavares explains his research process and includes images of the newspapers on his website, so teachers and librarians can share it with students.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Need for School Librarians

Four out of the five of us were in Connecticut this week for the annual conference of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in Hartford. I imagine we all might be posting our ruminations over the next few days. An article posted on Thursday on School Library Journal's website captures the dilemma the city of Hartford and other communities in Connecticut face: a dearth of certified school librarians to provide students with access to books and teachers with the support they need for books and digital texts that can be used in units of study. I heard my own version of this dilemma from a former student teaching in Connecticut.

Just as I was beginning the session that I was moderating, I happened to notice a woman sit down on the end of one of the aisles, a librarian with whom I worked for years in suburban New York City. As a teacher educator speaking to a room full of librarians, it was particularly rewarding to have in that room two librarians from two different public schools in different states in which I've taught. I know I couldn't, and can't, do the work that I do without collaborating with librarians. As districts across the nation try to make the switch to the Common Core Standards, I hope more can look not at the latest "something" that they can buy, but rather, at how they can build capacity within schools by creating and fostering a climate of collaboration between administrators, teachers, literacy coaches, and school librarians.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Exemplary Texts for Thinking About Craft and Structure

A recent article by Karla Moller in the Fall 2013 issue of  Journal of Children's Literature entitled "Considering the CCSS Nonfictional Literature Exemplars as Cultural Artifacts: What Do They Represent?" emphasized the need to carefully examine the "exemplary texts" listed in Appendix B. It got me wondering about this famous list. What makes these books exemplary? What are they exemplary of? How do they support learning in content areas and in language and literacy? How do they match curriculum in science, math, and social studies? How do they support learning in these areas?

With these questions in mind, I headed back to Appendix B. I learned--once again--that these books are exemplars of the level of complexity and quality required at different grade bands.

But what if, in addition to having students work so hard to show us they "get" the content, they also focused on the creative part of shaping information? This involves various elements working together--(1) the main idea, (2) the organizational structure, (3) the style of writing, (4) the integration of visual information, and (5) the use of disciplinary thinking. This is the crucial part students often don't get: There is a creative side to writing nonfiction that is influenced by the author's decisions and disciplinary constraints. Even my graduate students are surprised by the flexibility of formats and options open to writers, so I am pretty sure younger students are too. Understanding the process of writing nonfiction is just as important as understanding the content presented.

So I would like to suggest some titles that can be used as exemplars of the craft of shaping information:

  • Locomotive by Brian Floca can be read as an example of how poetic language and detailed and sometimes humorous illustration work together to promote understanding.
  • Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming can be read to see that there are alternatives to writing biographies in chronological order.
  • The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson can be read to see how memoir can be written using flashbacks and flashforwards. Once again, an author makes flexible use of chronology to enhance the telling of true story. In this case, the author's open, honest, sincere tone invite us into this compelling story.
  • Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo can be read to see how a whole book can be designed to provide context for understanding a single iconic photograph.
  • Night Flight by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor can be read to see how rich, poetic text accompanied by dramatic paintings evoke an event in history.
  • What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Paige can be read to see how a guessing game with questions and answers can interest readers in thinking about science--in this case, the form and function of animal parts. Jenkins' characteristic cut-paper illustrations support this experience.

The point is this: Even though CCSS has a standard devoted to craft and structure, there is more to it than understanding a collection of separate techniques. The techniques work together in a supportive manner. That's what exemplary text means to me. And, that is why I think this integration of content and craft needs to be further examined.