I feel like a broken record saying this, because I’ve muttered it many times here before, but there are some picture books that make me wish I could snap my fingers and instantly be back in a school library. Or they have me scrambling to find the closest librarian friend who will let me visit and temporarily take over story time. We’ll put these books into my mental Classroom File. Some books are so good that you want to insta-share them with groups of children. Also, some books would make such excellent writing prompts that you want to be sure language arts teachers know about them as the entertaining and classroom-friendly creations they are.
I have three such books on my mind today, brand-new picture books that share quite a few things in common. Kevin Henkes’ Egg; Deborah Freedman’s This House, Once; and Elaine Magliaro’s Things to Do, illustrated by Catia Chien, are all gentle stories. Each has such soft-focus, even velvety (in some instances) illustrations. Each, save Magliaro’s and Chien’s book, have surprise illustrations under the book jackets, always a fun discovery. Henkes’ and Freedman’s stories come full-circle, bringing child readers in the end back to the beginning, which can serve as a satisfying reading experience for audiences (of all ages). Magliaro’s and Chien’s book is similar in that it takes readers through the arc of a day, hinting at the next day’s morning. But, above all, each book would make a solidly good writing prompt for elementary language arts teachers.
In Things to Do, Elaine Magliaro, a former elementary teacher and school librarian, conjures up to-do lists for animals in nature (spiders, bees, crickets, birds, and more) – and the dawn, the acorn, the sun, the sky, and rain to boot. (Don’t forget the duties of rain boots, as well.) She writes in flowing rhymes, playful and imaginative:
As mentioned, she takes child readers through sun-up to sun-down, the book closing with the moon’s to-do list. (The moon has options: “Be bold … or be shy.”) The girl wakes, heads outside to play, swings, and flies a kite. At one point, Magliaro shifts from animals and nature to erasers and scissors, because while the girl is enjoying the outdoors, rain comes to deter her. She heads inside to make things – and even get a nap in. Before she nods off, the girl tells the rain, in its list of duties, that it has an obligation to “go away.” A pluviophile she is not.
Magliaro, who writes in such a visually descriptive way here, clearly thinks outside the box, and the book, with its largely impressionistic, bright full-bleed spreads from Chien, would be a perfect introduction in elementary language arts classrooms to poetry-writing, as well as helping children find narratives via list-making (a furtive way to get children writing during the day).
Everything about Deborah Freedman’s new book, This House, Once (coming to shelves later this month), is soft and comforting, as if wrapped up in a sweet memory. It’s a story that looks at origins – in this case, those of a house. On the first spread, readers see a lone door with a red knob. “This door was once a colossal oak tree,” Freedman writes, “about three hugs around and as high as the blue.” We see the tree that we know is to become a door on the next spread. Added to the door in the next spread are the stones, once “deep asleep” in the ground. And so on: we learn what the bricks and roof once were. On alternating spreads, as we look back on what once was, we see a small kitten exploring. Eventually, the kitten heads inside the house these materials help build; the house is surrounded by white and cold and clouds and mist, but it’s warm inside. We learn what the windows once were, and we see a child reading – the child reads under the stairs, mind you, as we only see his/her legs. It’s as if we see fragments of this world, which mimics how memories work in real life. “What were these all, once? This house remembers,” Freedman writes, bringing the story back around on the final spread to the door and the oak tree. This story can prompt discussions (and writing) with children that are, at turns, practical, thought-provoking, and even environmental/ecological in nature. It is, as the starred Kirkus review notes, “tender, comforting, and complex.”
Grids. That’s what Kevin Henkes puts to use in his newest book, Egg, already on shelves. The opening spread, for instance, is divided into eight even grids, showing four pastel-colored eggs – but only three cracking. Three beautiful birds emerge, but that fourth green egg? We must wait patiently – and wait and wait, as we see 16 smaller visions of this egg on one page – with “waiting” 16 times. (Children spend a lot of time waiting, and this one page captures it well.) The three birds, eager to meet whoever is inside, manage to crack the egg open. Out pops a crocodile, who frightens the birds away and is left sad and lonely. But the birds have a change of tune (bad pun not intended) and befriend him. In the end, the orange sun in the sky—via even more grids—morphs into an egg. “The end … maybe.”
Henkes plays brilliantly here with composition and squares and white space to reveal the egg’s surprise, which will delight the youngest of readers. Closing with another egg, with a mystery inside, brings the story full-circle, and I want to gather together some elementary students and have them write and draw their own stories, paced with such grids.
I may not be able to conjure up a classroom, but I can certainly do my part to yawp about the picture books that would make superb additions to school library and classroom collections all over.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.