Emmie Stuart

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

I rely on books with powerful messages and strong curricular content for the foundation of my lessons. But as I looked at my students recently, I realized they needed some levity and laughter. Setting aside standards and pacing guides, I shifted gears and pulled out Peggy Rathman’s Officer Buckle and Gloria, Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce, Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s Creepy Carrots and my entire James Marshall collection. Using my silliest voices and making sure to pause in just the right places, I read the books aloud. Their masks did not mask my students’ laughter. Their delight was evident in their twinkling eyes and relaxed body language.

Teachers know when their students are feeling anxious, somber or weary. When you sense heaviness in your classroom, gather your students around you and share these three books. They are lighthearted. They are well executed. They are unexpectedly tender. And they are silly. Your students’ spirits will be lifted as they briefly forget their worries and share moments of humor and cheer with their teacher and friends.

Have You Seen Gordon by Adam Jay Epstein and Ruth Chan book coverHave You Seen Gordon?
By Adam Jay Epstein

Illustrated by Ruth Chan

Gordon, a purple tapir, lives in a world buzzing with the activities of busy anthropomorphic animals. Have You Seen Gordon? begins like a normal seek-and-find book, as an upbeat narrator asks readers if they can find Gordon—but then this quirky story takes a turn for the unexpected. Initially, Gordon cooperates, behaving like the typical subject of a seek-and-find book, hiding in plain sight among illustrator Ruth Chan’s bustling spreads, but he becomes disillusioned with hiding and places himself in easily spotted locations. When the narrator accuses him of “not hiding at all,” Gordon declares, “I don’t want to hide anymore. I’m proud of who I am. From now on, I want to stand out.”

The narrator selects another animal for readers to find, this time a blue rhinoceros who is a construction worker. But she quickly interrupts the narrator and announces, “I have a name. It’s Jane. And I’m kind of shy. I don’t like a lot of attention.” Teeming with humorous details and energy, this witty and winsome adventure will win students’ affection. Be prepared for repeat readings!

  • Foundational skills

Fostering early literacy skills is an area of instruction that I tend to overlook when I’m planning lessons and talking about books with pre- and emerging readers. The energetic and detailed scenes in Have You Seen Gordon? provide a fun and engaging opportunity for students to work on early phonemic awareness skills. This can be a whole-class activity if you have a way to display the book’s scenes enlarged, such as with an overhead projector or smart board device, or a small-group activity if you have several copies of the physical book. Here are the prompts I used with my students.

  • Can you find three things that start with the letter G?
  • I wonder what we can find that starts with the “ch” sound?
  • I spy something that rhymes with the word rain. What do I spy?
  • How many bikes are in this illustration?


  • Wordplay

Have You Seen Gordon? is packed with humorous semantic devices. Begin by offering students a brief definition of wordplay. I used Merriam Webster’s definition, “the playful use of words,” followed by my own explanation: “Wordplay is when letters, words and sounds are creatively used to make us laugh.” Show students examples of various forms of wordplay including puns, idioms and spelling manipulation.

Reread the book and see how many examples of wordplay students can spot. Point out and explain instances of wordplay that are unfamiliar for younger students. Older students can extend this activity by creating and illustrating wordplay of their own.

  • Collaborative scene

Gordon and friends are depicted in a range of different environments, from a city street to an art museum, a mall and a campground. Make a comprehensive list of all the settings. Ask students if they can think of other distinct settings they could add to the list. Next, narrow the list down to four settings and let students vote on which scene to create collaboratively.

Roll out a piece of butcher paper and let students work in pairs to illustrate the background of the scene. When they’re not working on the background, students will draw and color their own creatures. Once the background is finished, position the students’ creatures on the butcher paper to create a full scene similar to those in Have You Seen Gordon?

Vampenguin by Lucy Ruth Cummins book coverVampenguin
By Lucy Ruth Cummins

After waking up early one morning, the Dracula family heads to the zoo. Their first stop is the penguin house, filled with all different kinds of penguins. It’s here that the youngest Dracula, whose skin is paper white and who wears a black cape and yellow shoes with a matching yellow pacifier, slides out of the stroller and enters the penguin enclosure. Meanwhile, a small penguin takes the child’s place in the stroller. The rest of the Dracula family, oblivious to the switch, continues their zoo expedition.

Author-illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins’ straightforward text continues to recount the family’s day without acknowledging the switcheroo, while the illustrations depict the shenanigans of the youngest Dracula and the little penguin. Replete with vampire jokes, the silly antics in Vampenguin elicited audible giggles from my students.

  • Words and pictures

Explain how in some picture books, the story depends on the pictures and the pictures depend on the words. Some picture books can be understood without their illustrations, but many cannot. I love to demonstrate this interplay by asking students to imagine a picture book we have just read being adapted to an audiobook.

This concept is expertly executed in Vampenguin because Cummins’ text tells one story and her illustrations tell another. Read the book again without showing the illustrations to the class as you do so. Invite students to share what is missed in the absence of the pictures. Does the story make sense? Is it even the same story? Explore other picture books with strong text and illustration interdependency.

  • Creative writing

Ask students to brainstorm which zoo exhibit they would like to join for a few hours, like the youngest member of the Dracula family does. (Begin by establishing that zoo creatures cannot harm or eat students for the purposes of this exercise). Provide books about animals commonly found at the zoo and give students time to take notes about animal behavior. Students will blend their research and their imagination to write first-person narratives of an afternoon in an animal exhibit. Turn on some zoo cams for inspiration as students work on their stories.

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld book coverThe Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess
By Tom Gauld

In this tale of sibling loyalty and love, cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Tom Gauld weaves together old and new, funny and tender. The king and queen are happy as they rule their kingdom, but they long for children. An inventor and a witch step in and bequeath them with “a wonderful, intricate little wooden robot” and a princess magically brought to life from a log in the witch’s basket of firewood. Unfortunately, the princess’s enchantment comes with a catch: Every night, she turns back into a log until she is awakened with some magic words. One morning, an overzealous and uninformed maid spies the log in the princess’s bed and tosses it out the window.

Filled with grief, the princess’s wooden-robot brother immediately leaves on a quest to find her. His journey contains “too many adventures to recount here,” but his perseverance—driven by his love for his sister—is rewarded. The princess demonstrates her love, too, when she courageously saves her brother on their way home.

Like most fairy tales, this familiar yet novel picture book will captivate young imaginations, but it achieves something more. Its young heroes suggest to children how their lives are also stories and they can also live with courageous and persevering love.

  • Shape art

Tom Gauld’s simple-seeming cartoon illustrations are filled with geometric shapes. Go on a “shape hunt” in the book and find ways that Gauld uses simple shapes to create characters and settings.

Using paper punches and paper to make shapes of varying sizes, colors and patterns. Group the shapes on paper plates and let students choose several shapes to transform into a setting or a character. Give students time and space to trade shapes with one another or to gather additional shapes as they work on their creations.

  • Exploring theme

Theme is one of those elusive concepts that is embedded in most English-language arts educational standards. I often struggle to teach students how to differentiate between a story’s main idea and its theme, but The Little Wooden Robot and Log Princess has a definite theme: the loyal, selfless love between siblings.

After determining the theme, ask students to identify details in the story that support the theme. With older students, discuss how fairy tales treat themes differently than other fictional storytelling forms or even nonfiction. Ask students how The Little Wood Robot and the Log Princess might help them understand how to be a better sibling or friend?

  • Fairy tale elements

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess contains many familiar fairy tale tropes. Before reading the book aloud to your students, discuss common elements of fairy tales. This is the list I discussed with my third graders:

  • A beginning and an ending
  • Good versus evil
  • Repeating numbers
  • Magic
  • An antagonist
  • A moral

Share a few additional fairy tales (I recommend Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel, Rachel Isadora’s Hansel and Gretel and Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young’s Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story From China) and fill in a graphic organizer. After reading The Little Wooden Robot and Log Princess, compare it to other fairy tales. What is the same? What is different? Fill the graphic organizer and discuss the most prominent similarities and differences.

Teachers know when their students are feeling anxious, somber or weary. When you sense heaviness in your classroom, gather your students around you and share these three books. They are lighthearted. They are well executed. They are unexpectedly tender. And they are silly.

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

The chef and writer Julia Child once mused, “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you?” We know when a dish or a meal has been prepared with intentionality and love, and part of what we enjoy when we eat it is the feeling of assurance that we are cared for and valued.

I remember many Saturday afternoons spent perched on a kitchen stool as I helped my paternal grandfather make chicken and dumplings, pear preserves and fried okra, and many wintry mornings spent twirling around on the bar stools in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen, watching as she prepared toad in a hole (fried eggs cracked into pieces of bread with the middle cut out) and cream of wheat topped with heaps of brown sugar.

In a class discussion with my second graders last year, I asked them to share a beloved family food. Their responses were robust and enthusiastic. They were all eager to describe their favorite dishes in great detail, from comfort foods such as snowy potatoes and cheesy noodles to regional specialties such as Coca-Cola cake and clam donuts. My students’ love for these foods was audible in their voices.

Our favorite dishes don’t evoke such strong feelings because of the recipes we follow when we make them or even because of the way they taste. They’re our favorites because they connect us to the people we love most, who have expressed their love for us through food.

These three books skillfully explore themes of cooking and food and but gain deeper emotional resonance thanks to the intergenerational relationships at their hearts. Share them with your students, and be sure to allow for extra time so they can share, in return, their own cherished culinary memories.

Dumplings for LiliDumplings for Lili
By Melissa Iwai

Lili loves baos, Chinese dumplings that are “bundles of warm, doughy, juicy yumminess,” so she is thrilled when Nai Nai, her grandmother, invites her to help make them. As they begin to cook, Nai Nai discovers that she is out of cabbage and sends Lili up to the sixth floor of her building to borrow some from Babcia, a white-haired grandmother who is making pierogi. Babcia, too, is missing an ingredient she needs and sends Lili down to the second floor to see whether Granma has any potatoes she could spare.

The pattern continues as Lili fetches and delivers missing ingredients to Abuela, Nonna, Granma and Teta, up and down the floors of Nai Nai’s apartment building. When Lili has finished all her errands and the baos have finished steaming, she and Nai Nai gather at a big table outside with the building’s other residents, who all bring the dumplings they’ve made. The celebration is complete when Lili’s parents arrive with Lili’s newborn brother, a “little dumpling treasure” of her very own. Readers who loved Oge Mora’s Caldecott Honor book Thank You, Omu! will love this story that brims with warmth as it captures a slice of life in a diverse community.

  • Room reflections

The decor in each of the apartments that Lili visits reflects its owner’s cultural heritage. Revisit these illustrations with your students. Ask them to tell you what details they notice in each apartment. How do the decorations, furnishings and dishes each woman is cooking reflect their culture?

Invite students to consider what an individual’s room or house might reveal about their personality and identity. Explain how objects around your classroom reflect you and your background.

Give students sheets of drawing paper and art supplies, such as crayons or colored pencils. Ask them to imagine and draw a living space, like a kitchen or a bedroom, and to fill the room with objects that reflect their hobbies, interests or family/heritage.

  • Culinary research

Provide books, magazines or online resources that contain information about traditional foods from many countries and cultures. Give students time to explore them, then ask them to choose a dish and a culture to research further and then deliver a presentation about. Create a guideline sheet that outlines the information they must include, such as the history of the dish, what time of day or year it is traditionally eaten, how it is prepared and so on. Allow the option of using either digital presentation tools or physical ones, such as poster board.

  • Apartment stories

Depending on your community, your students may be unfamiliar with the concept of apartment living or would enjoy reading more books about characters who live in apartments like they do. Read more books about apartments and other forms of communal housing. Some of my favorites include Ezra Jack Keats’ Apt. 3, Mac Barnett and Brian Biggs’ Noisy Night, Eve Bunting and Kathryn Hewitt’s Flower Garden and Einat Tsarfati’s The Neighbors, which was translated by Annette Appel.

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth LillyLet Me Fix You a Plate
By Elizabeth Lilly

Every year, the narrator of Elizabeth Lilly’s Let Me Fix You a Plate leaves the city with her sisters and parents. They drive first to Mamaw and Papaw's house in the rural mountains of West Virginia. In the morning, they enjoy a delicious breakfast of sausage and toast with blackberry jam, then they help Mamaw make banana pudding. A few days later, they hug goodbye, get back in the car and drive to Abuela and Abuelo’s bright orange home in Florida. Here, they enjoy eating crispy tostones, arepas with queso blanco and flan, but soon they are saying goodbye again and heading back home to their own family feast of waffles and syrup before they fall into bed. Lilly’s detailed and colorful illustrations reflect the cozy presence of love in all three of the homes she depicts. Joyous and appealing, Let Me Fix You a Plate is a satisfying tale that celebrates road trips, family and food.

  • Food traditions interview

Ask students to think about a family member or person in the community who has prepared a traditional dish or meal for them. Most of my students chose a grandparent, but two students wanted to interview the owners of restaurants and bakeries in our community. If you have students for whom interviewing family members won’t be possible, ask teachers at your school if they would be willing to serve as interview subjects.

As a class, think of five or six questions that students will ask in their interviews. Create a simple form that contains the questions and space for students to record answers. Discuss interviewing techniques and etiquette and give students time to practice with their classmates.

Older students can extend this activity by crafting their interviewees' responses into a piece of reflective writing. Invite them to add visuals to their writing, then put their pieces together and publish a classroom food traditions memoir.

  • Same, same, but different

I use this exercise all the time because it shows students that while the details of families, homes, cultures and traditions may appear to be very different, many commonalities exist among them, and differences and similarities are all beautiful and worth celebrating.

As a class, revisit the illustrations in Let Me Fix You a Plate. Write down all the differences you can spot between the grandparents’ two houses that the narrator visits, then go back and write down the commonalities. Finally, examine the illustrations that depict the narrator's family’s own home and see what students notice.

Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham book coverSoul Food Sunday
By Winsome Bingham
Illustrated by C.G. Esperanza

When a boy arrives at Granny’s house on Sunday, he follows her to the kitchen. “Time for you to learn,” she says, how to prepare a traditional soul food Sunday meal. The boy dons his grandfather’s chef’s jacket from when he was in the Army and listens as his grandmother affectionately explains the steps of the meal’s many dishes, including macaroni and cheese, greens, chicken and ribs. Although he finds it challenging to work on the dishes ("My hand hurt. My arm aches. But I don’t quit."), he perseveres and even prepares a pitcher of sweet tea to add to the feast. After all, Granny says that “unless sweet tea is on the table, it’s not soul food Sunday.” Illustrator C.G. Esperanza’s layered oil paintings capture the energy and love of a big family meal through bright, colorful illustrations. This joyful picture book celebrates soul food and the nourishment of gathering around the table with loved ones.

  • Sounds of home

Soul Food Sunday is filled with onomatopoeia and words related to sound. Read the book again and make a chart of these words. Ask students to consider how these words add sensory detail, energy and atmosphere to the story.

Read other books with examples of onomatopoeia, then task students with a “sounds of home” challenge. Give them index cards and ask them to write down the sounds of their afternoon and evening, from the bus ride home to their evening meal to the sounds of their bedtime routine.

  • Miniature murals

Esperanza’s oil paint illustrations draw inspiration from street art and murals. With your students, visit Esperanza’s website. Explore his portfolio and read his picture book, Boogie Boogie, Y’all, a fantastical tale about graffiti coming to life. Guide students through a discussion of Esperanza’s art. Questions I like to pose during this exercise include:

  • How do these illustrations make you feel?
  • What things do you think about when you see these pictures?
  • What do you think the artist used to create this art?
  • What makes you say that?

Read more books about street art and murals. I recommend F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell and Rafael López’s Maybe Something Beautiful and Ian Lendler and Katie Yamasaki’s Everything Naomi Loved.

Give students oversize pieces of paper and let them sketch and design their own miniature murals. After they’ve settled on their designs, provide them with oil pastels or paints and brushes so they can add color and texture. Combine their miniature murals into a single, large mural in the hallway.

The chef and writer Julia Child once mused, “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you?” We know when a dish or a meal has been prepared with intentionality and love, and part of what we enjoy when we eat it is the feeling of assurance that we are cared for and valued.

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

As a teacher, a new school year means a clean classroom and a fresh start, as well as the end of mornings sleeping past 5 a.m. and days spent reading by the pool. As a student, however, excitement and nerves always kept me awake on the night before the first day. My first-day outfit and fresh school supplies were often overshadowed by worry. The idea of walking into a classroom filled with new classmates, strange routines and a teacher I’d never met was downright terrifying.

These three books reminded me that many students aren’t thinking about summer reading assignments or new lessons during the first weeks of the school year. Instead, they’re worrying about entering or reentering a world where the potential for rejection seems to be around every corner. They’re worrying that their personality, interests or appearance won’t live up to the elusive standards set by their peers or by popular culture.

Sharing stories about characters who also experience these fears will validate students’ concerns about acceptance and identity. These books also remind students who are heading into a new school year without such concerns that their kind words and welcoming smiles can be lifelines for their new and uncertain classmates.

Little Bat in Night School by Brian Lies book coverLittle Bat in Night School
By Brian Lies

Little Bat is excited to begin attending night school for the first time, but when Mama Bat drops him off at a classroom full of various nocturnal animals, he discovers that school isn’t quite what he thought it would be. After two other students reject him (“‘We’re already playing—’ one said. ‘—with each other,’ the other one added.”), Little Bat flies into a cubby to hide. There, he meets an opossum named Ophelia and they become instant comrades. Bolstered by their new friendship, the pair rejoins the class and spends the rest of the night participating in classroom activities such as storytime and recess. Brian Lies’ illustrations are infused with personality, and his straightforward text and witty asides convey an important message with lightness and humor.

  • Creative writing

Pair Little Bat in Night School with another book in Lies’ series of picture books about bats. Bats in the Library is particularly beloved among my students. As a class, decide on a place where you would take a group of bats (for example, to an amusement park, the movie theater or the White House). Lead the class through a creative writing exercise. Provide students with guiding questions, including:

  • What does this place look like at night?
  • What will the bats wear?
  • What will they eat?
  • What will the bats do?
  • Who will they meet?

Afterward, let students work in pairs to write and illustrate their own stories about the bats at the chosen location.

  • Nocturnal animal research

Briefly discuss the other animals in Little Bat’s class, then prompt the class to tell you why these specific animals are Little Bat’s classmates (hint: because they’re all nocturnal animals). Make a graphic organizer on a piece of chart paper. Over the course of a week, read a variety of nonfiction books about these nocturnal animals. As you learn about each  animal, add to the graphic organizer and discuss the animals’ similarities and differences. At the end of the week, read Little Bat at Night School again. Ask the class, “Do the facts we learned over the past week help us better understand Little Bat or his classmates’ personalities, behaviors and classroom activities?”

  • Open art building

One of Little Bat’s favorite classroom activities is building a car out of various odds and ends. Gather a variety of materials (paper towel rolls, pipe cleaners, old CDs, plastic containers and bins, drinking straws, foil pans, fabric scraps, clay, bottle caps, toothpicks, egg cartons, paper plates and so on) and provide plenty of masking tape. Give students free rein to emulate Little Bat and craft a unique creation.

Bird Boy by Matthew Burgess book coverBird Boy
By Matthew Burgess
Illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

Nico is nervous as he approaches his classroom, and it feels like his backpack is “full of stones.” When he arrives, he is the new kid, an outsider among his classmates. Nico is “a little lost,” but he finds creative ways to spend his time. He sits peacefully in the sun and befriends a flock of birds, which earns him the nickname “Bird Boy.” Initially a little hurt by his nickname, Nico decides to embrace it and imagines himself having a variety of bird adventures. Eventually, Nico’s kindness draws others to him, and he makes two friends who join “the wild flights of his imagination.” Gentle and surprising, Bird Boy celebrates the joy and freedom that comes with being delightfully different.

  • Personal nickname art

I love doing this activity at the beginning of the school year, when classroom culture and class bonding is essential. After discussing Nico’s nickname, give students time to reflect on their personal hobbies and interests. What is something they enjoy that is unique to them? Help them turn this into a personal nickname.

Type each child’s name in a large font at the top of a sheet of paper. At the bottom, type their chosen nickname. In the middle of the page, students will draw, paint or collage a visual interpretation of their nickname. Mount the sheets on colorful paper and laminate them. Give time for each student to share and explain their nickname to the class. Hang their creations along the top of a classroom wall for the entire school year.

  • Birding adventures

Nico imagines what he would do if he were various types of birds. He cruises the coastline like a pelican, hovers among the flowers like a hummingbird and dives off an iceberg like a penguin. Provide students with books that contain information about different kinds of birds. Invite students to choose a bird, then give them time to research it. Using their research, they will write about an activity that coordinates with their bird’s specific traits. For example, “I imagine that I am balancing like a flamingo,” or “I imagine I’m a peacock, strutting through the streets of India.”

  • Classroom culture conversation

Nico is the new student in his already established classroom. Sit in a circle and ask students to think about a time when they were new, like joining a new sports team, attending a new school or participating in a new activity. Ask, “How did you feel when you were the new one or faced an unfamiliar experience?” Allow time for students to share their memories and reflections. Then ask, “Who or what made this experience easier or harder for you?” Record students’ thoughts on the board or on a piece of chart paper. Next, ask students how this discussion can help make their classroom a more welcoming place for new students and for those who feel lonely or on the outside. Students will have lots of ideas. Record their ideas on chart paper and laminate it. Display the list in the classroom and refer to it often.

This Is Ruby
By Sara O’Leary
Illustrated by Alea Marley

Ruby “can’t wait to share her day with you.” Her bedroom is brimming with books, building supplies, paint and other materials, because “there are so many things she wants to do and make and be.” Ruby’s curiosity drives her to make a volcano, watch plants grow, take apart a watch and create a potion. She travels back to the era of the dinosaurs and visits the future in a time machine that she invented. When her busy day comes to an end, Ruby looks forward to tomorrow because she knows there is “no end of things to do.” Questions directed at readers (“If you could travel anywhere in time, where would you go?” and “What kind of things are you curious about?”) encourage self-reflection. Engaging and playful, This Is Ruby is an ideal read-aloud for getting to know new classmates and building classroom community.

  • Career aspirations

Ruby’s interests have her dreaming of many different careers. Of course, “she hasn’t decided yet.” If your school has a guidance counselor, collaborate with them to provide resources that contain information about a wide variety of careers. If possible, invite a few classroom caregivers or members of the school community into the classroom to share with students. Extend the exploration by hosting a career fair. Ask students to research an occupation, then create a visual aid and a brief (60 seconds or less) oral presentation. On the day of the fair, invite students from other classrooms to visit and walk around listening to students’ oral presentations.

  • Book of smells

Ruby makes a book of smells for her dog, Teddy. Bring in a variety of items students can use to create their own book of smells, such as finger paint, herbs and spices (add a bit of water to spices and make a paste), juice, mustard, essential oils, scratch-and-sniff stickers, cooking extracts, coffee, dried flowers and unlit scented wax candles. Fold and staple two pages of construction paper to create books, or use a single page of oversize paper. Students will use the materials to create scent samples on the pages, then create a cover for their books. Don’t forget to add labels under each scent!

  • Time-travel adventures

Ruby travels back in time and forward to the future. Read aloud other books about time travel. I recommend Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? and Jared Chapman’s T-Rex Time Machine. Afterward, invite students to choose a day or an era in time for their own time-travel adventure. Students will do research or ask family members for details about their chosen destinations, then turn their research into a creative writing piece. The writing can be narrative, fictional or epistolary.

As a teacher, a new school year means a clean classroom and a fresh start, as well as the end of mornings sleeping past 5 a.m. and days spent reading by the pool. As a student, however, excitement and nerves always kept me awake on the night before the first day.

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

I feel the generational gap most strongly when I ask my students about their plans for their summer vacations. Consider a few of this year’s responses: “I’m going to eight different camps!” “Swim team in the mornings, baseball practice for my travel team in the afternoons and then we’re going on a trip out west!” “Summer school, art camp and two overnight camps with my entire Girl Scouts troop!”

My fondest and most vivid childhood summer memories are not from camp or swim team practice. They are from unstructured moments. I remember climbing the white stairs of Nashville’s downtown public library, giddy with the anticipation of new-to-me books and audiobooks waiting to be discovered inside. I remember endless afternoons under the backyard pine trees playing Roxaboxen (inspired by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney’s picture book of the same name, in which a group of children create an imaginary town together). I remember wading, catching crawdads and looking for pottery the pioneers left behind in the creek at the bottom of the hill.

Who else is in these memories? My sister, brother and parents. I know neighbors and friends were also there, but they are hazy figures in my mind’s eye. However, I can clearly recall my sister meticulously lining her Roxaboxen bakery with pinecones, my brother peering under a rock to discover the creek life hiding beneath and my mom loading stacks of our library materials into our red and white tote bags.

Unstructured family moments are at the heart of these three books. They remind me of the importance of creating a classroom environment that fosters child-centered creativity, play-based learning and genuine friendships among my students.

The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat book coverThe Ramble Shamble Children
By Christina Soontornvat

Illustrated by Lauren Castillo

“Down the mountain, across the creek, past the last curve in the road” is the ramble shamble house where five children—Merra, Locky, Roozle, Finn and Jory—live together. They each have their own responsibilities. Merra tends the garden and tells bedtime stories, Locky and Roozle chase off the blackbirds and fetch the carrots, Finn feeds the chicken and gathers the eggs, and infant Jory looks after the mud. Happiness presides until they discover “what a proper house looks like” in the pages of an old book. They set to work fixing up their own house, only to find that the upgrades and changes strip the house of its personality and comfortable if slightly chaotic atmosphere. Reflective of children’s tendencies to imagine a life independent of adults, The Ramble Shamble Children is a warm story filled with meadows, mud and simple moments.

  • Loose part play

What are loose parts? A key element from pedagogical philosophy called the Reggio Emilia Approach, loose parts are items that can be moved and manipulated. The versatility of these items creates space for creativity and provides opportunities for kinesthetic learning. My students look forward to loose-part lessons, and I’m always impressed with the innovation that occurs as they build and manipulate the objects.

Give each student a sturdy paper plate and invite them to gather a variety of loose-part materials from a central table. After reading The Ramble Shamble Children, we used wooden cube blocks, mulch chips, large pieces of wood, small pebbles, sea glass, small shells, buttons, acorns and small pinecones. I provided brown sandpaper to use as a base. Students used the materials to create their own ramble shamble house and garden.

  • Meal planning and prepping

Each child in The Ramble Shamble Children has a specific job in preparing meals. Divide students into groups of two to four. Provide cookbooks or recipe websites. Together, the students will plan a meal and determine who will be responsible for each part of the meal. Encourage students to create a list of the ingredients they will need for the meal. Older students can present their meals to the class in the form of a visual and oral presentation. Let the class vote on which group’s meal sounds the most enticing.

  • Ramble shamble collage

Provide a variety of home decorating, landscaping, travel and architecture magazines, along with scissors, glue sticks and oversized paper. Lead a discussion on different types of homes, houses and decorating styles. Let students flip through the magazines and cut and paste images creating personal “ramble shamble” houses.

When My Cousins Come to Town by Angela Shante book coverWhen My Cousins Come to Town
By Angela Shanté

Illustrated by Keisha Kramer

“Every summer my cousins come to visit me in the city,” says a girl with round red glasses and gold beaded braids. She is the youngest cousin and the only one who doesn’t have a nickname in their family, but she hopes her cousins will give her one as a gift for her birthday at the end of summer. As each cousin arrives, she attempts to emulate the characteristic that earned them their nickname. From cooking with her cousin Lynn (nicknamed “Spice”) to racing around the block like her cousin Sharise (nicknamed “Swift”), the girl’s efforts only result in frustration, and she worries that another birthday will pass without receiving a nickname. Comical, poignant and richly illustrated, When My Cousins Come to Town honors the importance of identity and the value found in family traditions.

  • Narrative writing

The girl loves the summer traditions she shares with her cousins. Invite students to think of a favorite tradition in their family. Remind them that it can be something as simple as watching a movie together each year, like how the cousins in the book watch The Wiz every summer.

Lead a brainstorming exercise in which students list every detail they can remember about the tradition, including sounds, smells and tastes. Next, ask students to turn their list into a piece of narrative writing that uses the first-person perspective. Remind them to include a strong opening and closing and descriptive details so that readers can clearly imagine the tradition.

  • Where are the adults?

Generate a discussion about the role of adults in imaginative play and child-centered problem resolutions by asking the following questions:

  • Why do you think the authors chose not to include adults in the books When My Cousins Come to Town and The Ramble Shamble Children?
  • How would adults have made the stories different?
  • Why do kids need time to play without adult direction?
  • In When My Cousins Come to Town, cousin Wayne’s nickname is “The Ambassador.” What role does he play?
  • Have you ever helped your friends work through a problem?
  • What are some ways that children can be peacemakers?

The House of Grass and Sky by Mary Lyn Ray book coverThe House of Grass and Sky
By Mary Lyn Ray

Illustrated by E.B. Goodale

“Once, out in the country, someone knew right where to build a house.” Over the years, the white wooden house is home to many families, along with their games, bedtime stories and birthday parties, until eventually it sits empty. Without a family living within its walls, the house feels different. It wishes to be a home again. Families come to look at it, but they all decide that it’s too small and too quiet. One day, the house is visited by a family with children who exclaim, “This one! This one! Please, can we live here? Please?” Working together, the family “fix what needs fixing and paint what needs painting,” restoring the house’s beauty and bringing life back to its rooms. Suffused with warmth and possibility, The House of Grass and Sky offers a unique perspective on houses, homes and family memories.

  • Personification

Discuss the concept of personification with your students. On a piece of chart paper, list the incidences of personification in The House of Grass and Sky. Read more books where a building is personified, including Jennifer ThermesWhen I Was Built, Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School and Jacqueline Davies and Lee White’s The House Takes a Vacation.

Ask students to think of a favorite memory that took place at home and to describe it from their home’s perspective. Remind them to include not just the events, but the home’s emotions as well.

  • Pattern play

E.B. Goodale uses digital collage in her illustrations, which include some lovely patterns for the house’s wallpaper, curtains and linens. Ask your local hardware or paint store if they have any wallpaper books or samples you can have. (If not, patterned paper works well, too).

Provide students with watercolor paints and watercolor paper. Ask them to create a painting of a room in their home or of an outdoor setting around their house. After the paintings dry, give students paper punches and scissors so they can create small accents out of the patterned wallpaper or paper. They will glue these patterned accents into their watercolor paintings, emulating Goodale’s illustrations in The House of Grass and Sky.

I feel the generational gap most strongly when I ask my students about their plans for their summer vacations.

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

The months of May and June are greeted with joy and relief by teachers and students alike, because they mean that summer break is just around the corner. As spirits and temperatures rise, so too does students’ energy. Every school year eventually reaches a point where typical classroom routines become a thing of the past, when attempting to stick to focused lessons is a recipe for frustration.

I like to capitalize on this restless year-end energy with art projects, nature walks and library scavenger hunts, but these activities are far more than mere time fillers. They are always extensions of a book. I’ve spent much of the past week cleaning our library tables after art activities, and my white cardigan is now dotted with green and blue. My students’ colorful tissue paper collages (inspired by Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed), watercolor and pastel nature scenes (inspired by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré’s Mornings With Monet) and colored pencil flowers (inspired by Shawn HarrisHave You Ever Seen a Flower?) fill my heart with happiness.

These three picture books introduce women who used their artistic gifts to showcase the simple things in life, raise awareness about important issues and add beauty to the world. I can’t wait to share their stories with my students and invite them to share in that beauty through creative projects.

And I Paint It by Beth Kephart book coverAnd I Paint It: Henriette Wyeth’s World
By Beth Kephart
Illustrated by Amy June Bates

“Wherever in our world / we want to go, we go— / Pa and me,” declares young Henriette Wyeth, the oldest child of illustrator N.C. Wyeth. In lyrical first-person prose, author Beth Kephart narrates a day that Henriette spends outdoors with her father. The pair slips away from the rest of their family to explore the land around their Pennsylvania farmhouse, taking time to notice and paint the foliage, creatures and vistas. Pa encourages Henriette to sense deeply and “love the object for its own sake.” Gentle and reflective, this poetic book introduces students to a renowned family of artists and showcases the power of noticing nature’s unassuming beauty.

  • Nature still life

Take students on a nature walk around the school grounds. Encourage them to collect pieces of nature that they find beautiful. When you return to the classroom, read the page from the book where Pa reminds Henriette to “love the object for its own sake.”

Give each student a small stack of index cards. Provide many different art mediums, such as crayons, graphite pencils, markers, watercolors, washable paint and colored pencils. Invite students to depict their object in as many ways as possible. Encourage them not just to use different mediums but also to vary their approaches to perspective, color, symmetry, line and so on.

  • Wyeth family art study

Read aloud Kephart’s author’s note, which identifies Pa as N.C. Wyeth, who was an American painter and one of the most well-known illustrators of the golden age of illustration. Discuss the story’s historical time period and look at Wyeth’s iconic illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe’s Kidnapped and more. Display an illustration and ask students to describe what they see and then ask them to write a short one-paragraph story about the illustration. This exercise helps students understand that illustration is a narrative art, filled with story.

Provide oversize books that showcase Wyeth’s artwork or create a slideshow of some of his most recognizable paintings. Take a picture walk through And I Paint It and see whether students can identify settings or landscapes that are drawn from Wyeth’s paintings. Finally, look at paintings from all five of the Wyeth children and encourage students to articulate similarities and differences between them.

Make Meatballs Sing by Matthew BurgessMake Meatballs Sing: The Life & Art of Corita Kent
By Matthew Burgess

Illustrated by Kara Kramer

As a child, Frances Elizabeth Kent loved to sneak away from her five siblings to draw and daydream. After college, she decided to pursue a religious life as a nun. Now known by her monastic name, Sister Mary Corita, she began teaching art at Immaculate Heart College, where she encouraged her students to “see the sacred in the everyday.” Her work soon became inspired by new techniques and perspectives, such as screenprinting, mass media and advertising, and she used her art to bring awareness to injustice, including poverty and racism.

Illustrator Kara Kramer’s bright, graphic, neon-hued illustrations reflect Corita’s bold art style and add energy to this story of a nun’s relentless pursuit of justice. Unexpected, inspiring and fun, Make Meatballs Sing is a joyful account of Corita’s life that captures how art can create awareness, spark change and convey messages of goodness, beauty and truth.

  • Cardboard finders

In one of her art classes, Corita “asked her students to cut a small window into a piece of cardboard to make a FINDER.” She led her students down Hollywood Boulevard and encouraged them to use their finders to see the beauty and detail in ordinary things.

Use thick card stock and a square punch to make finders. Give students time to decorate their finders, then take them on a walk around the school grounds. When you return to the classroom, ask students to draw or share the details their finders revealed in ordinary objects.

  • Word art

Corita was inspired by the words and imagery found in billboards, magazine ads and street signs. She often made art by rearranging shapes, text and colors into something new. Provide old magazines and other ephemera for your students and let them create art with the words and images that inspire them. Inspired by Kramer’s illustrations in the book, I gave my students graph paper to use as their canvas.

  • Postage stamps

In 1985, the United States Postal Service commissioned Corita to design a postage stamp. She created a rainbow that symbolized love, hope, kindness and unity. Invite students to consider what message they would want to share with the world through a small postage stamp and give them time to experiment with various designs. After they have settled on their design, let them create a polished, colorful version. Once every student has shared their stamp, display the stamps together on a bulletin board.

Unbound by Joyce Scott book coverUnbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott
By Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet

Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Joyce and Judith are sisters who do everything together. Their mom even says they’re “two peas in a pod.” But when it is time to begin kindergarten, Judy must stay at home because she has “what will come to be known as Down syndrome.” Joyce is devastated when Judy is sent to an institution and visits her faithfully for years. When saying goodbye becomes too hard, Joyce arranges for Judy to come live with her family in California. Joyce enrolls Judy in a local art class, and after her initial disinterest, Judy begins creating sculptures out of fiber, yarn, wood and other found objects. Exquisitely illustrated, Unbound is a tender, moving and personal tale of sisterhood that depicts the power and importance of loyalty and individual expression.

  • Found object art

Judith’s art incorporated many found objects, or items not normally considered to be art. Ask students to articulate why they think these items are classified this way. Invite them to collect found objects from their homes or the classroom. Allow them time to share their objects with a small group or the class.

Provide a variety of found objects and other supplies, such as tape, yarn, fibers, stationery, paper, cardboard, colored pencils, pastels and so on, so that students can create their own works of art. Display photographs of Judith Scott’s sculptures on a bulletin board, and display students’ sculptures on a table or shelf nearby.

  • Sculpture study

Read more about Judith’s life and art, as well as about the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, where she created her art. Make a slideshow of her sculptures. Show them to the class one by one and generate discussion by asking open-ended questions that encourage and foster visual literacy. Here are some examples of questions you can ask:

  • What do you see here?
  • What else do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?
  • How does this make you feel?
  • What do you think is going on here?
  • What do you notice about color, line, symmetry and size?
  • Do you think a story influenced this sculpture? What is it?

Three picture books introduce women who used their artistic gifts to showcase the simple things in life, raise awareness about important issues and add beauty to the world.

Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.

One of my favorite movies is John Crowley’s 2015 film, Brooklyn, adapted for film by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibin’s novel of the same name. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan, who leaves her home in a small Irish village for a new life in New York City in the early 1950s. It’s tender, unassuming and deeply moving.

In the final lines of the film, Eilis gives some advice to another young woman who’s making the same journey that she did from Ireland to America:

"You'll feel so homesick that you'll want to die, and there's nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won't kill you. And one day the sun’ll come out. You might not even notice straight away, it'll be that faint. And then you'll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past, someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”

These lines, delivered in Ronan’s Irish brogue, kept running through my mind as I read these books aloud with my students.

Leaving home is hard and, as Eilis experienced, many immigrants feel caught between two places and struggle to define what home means. As they validate how challenging adjusting to a new home can be, these three picture books offer hope for children who have immigrated to a new country and light for all those still in the opening chapters of their life’s story. 

Home Is in Between
By Mitali Perkins
Illustrated by Lavanya Naidu  

“Goodbye, home!” Shanti shouts as she waves to her grandmother, Didu, and the familiar surroundings of her village in India. When her plane lands, she discovers that her new home is “a town with cold rain / And orange and yellow leaves.” Adjusting is challenging. Shanti celebrates Indian traditions and customs and learns new American ones, always “remembering the village. Learning the town. Again and again. In Between.” At first, Shanti skips buoyantly through new experiences, such as Hollywood movies and Halloween, but eventually Shanti becomes exhausted from traversing between two cultures. “Where was she from? Village? Town?” she wonders. Resting in this question restores Shanti’s spirit and reminds her that perhaps the best home is actually in between. Accessible and sincere, Shanti’s story shines a light on the challenges and joys of inhabiting, embracing and celebrating two cultures. 

  • Illustration conversations

Discuss the concept of a picture book’s gutter, the vertical seam between the left (or verso) and right (or recto) pages formed by the book’s binding. Share examples of books that effectively use the gutter to extend the narrative or to add meaning to the story. I used Chris Raschka’s Yo! Yes?, Matthew Cordell’s Hello! Hello!, Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book and Suzy Lee’s Wave. 

Reread Home Is in Between and let students articulate how Naidu uses the gutter to differentiate between the two cultures depicted in the book. Naidu places Shanti’s apartment, full of keepsakes and reminders of her life in India, on the left side of the gutter, while on the right are Shanti’s experiences in her new American town. Ask students, “What do you notice about Shanti’s position on the pages? What does this tell us about Shanti’s thoughts about her two homes?”

  • Classroom celebrations

Shanti calls her family in India on the day of the Holi festival. Read aloud an informational book about Holi and invite students to share ideas for how Holi could be celebrated in the classroom. Next, divide students into small groups and provide books or online resources that explain a variety of cultural celebrations and holidays. Each group will choose a celebration to present to the class. Presentations must include information about the history of the celebration and where and how it is celebrated. Each group will also plan two to three ways to acknowledge the celebration in the classroom and choose a date that the celebration will occur. 

  • Goodbye pictures

When Shanti leaves India, Shanti tells her grandmother goodbye, but she also waves goodbye to “warm monsoon rains. And the green palm trees of her village.” Before dismissing children for the day, gather them together and tell them that their homework is to notice what they especially love about their community, town or geographical region. Show them a few pictures of places that are significantly different from your area (I used pictures of the Arizona desert and the Australian coast). Ask them to draw on their five senses and brainstorm about what they know and love about their corner of the world. What are two things they would miss if they had to move away from this area? The next day, invite students to share their brainstorming and provide paper for them to write and illustrate their goodbyes on. 

By Andrea Wang
Illustrated by Jason Chin

A young girl is annoyed when her parents pull their car over to the side of the road in the middle of an Ohio corn field to gather watercress. The uncomfortable, tedious process transforms the girl’s annoyance into disgust and embarrassment. When the watercress is served at dinner that night, she crosses her arms and refuses to eat. But when her mother shares the heartbreaking story of the famine that took her brother’s life during her childhood in China, the girl views the watercress on her family table with new understanding and deep appreciation. Using a single event to illustrate the misunderstandings that can happen between first-generation immigrants and their children, Watercress illuminates the importance of knowing, embracing and valuing cultural heritage. 

  • Food recollections

Watercress is much more than just a vegetable to the girl’s mother. It brings back memories and is a “delicate and slightly bitter” symbol of her childhood in China. Invite students to consider a food or dish that symbolizes a family tradition or holds strong memories. Give them time to free write, then guide them through turning their thoughts into a short essay rich with sensory language. This exercise is a good opportunity for teaching students how to incorporate figurative language into narrative writing. 

  • Word meanings

The girl’s mother praises watercress for being free, but to the girl, “Free is bad. Free is hand-me-down clothes and roadside trash-heap furniture and now, dinner from a ditch.” Lead students in a discussion about the word free. Based on the mother’s story and the history of China, what do they think free symbolizes for her? Write the word at the top of a piece of chart paper and make a T-chart. Making inferences from the book's text and illustrations, fill one column with the mother’s definition and thoughts about the word and the other column with the daughter’s ideas and connotations.

  • At home with culture

Though the family lives in Ohio, the girl’s parents are intentional about honoring their Chinese heritage. Take a picture walk through the book and ask students to identify specific details in the illustrations that signify the family’s heritage. My classes found several examples in the dining room scenes. Encourage students to notice cultural elements present in their own homes or in the home of relatives. Invite older students to journal about the ways their home decor or family routines reflect their heritage or their family’s values. If time allows, read books that contain pictures of homes around the world and discuss similarities and differences.  

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Watercress.

Coquí in the City
By Nomar Perez  

Miguel loves his life in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He loves flying kites by el Morro, the old fort; playing baseball with his friends at the park; buying quesitos, his favorite treat, from the bakery; and listening to his abuelo’s stories. Most of all, he loves his pet frog, Coquí, who accompanies him on all of these activities, because he is “part of the familia.” When Miguel’s parents tell him that they will be moving to the U.S. mainland, Miguel worries about missing all his favorite things, but most of all, he knows he will miss Coquí, who must stay behind. When Miguel and Mama venture into their New York City neighborhood for the first time, Miguel is overwhelmed by “the newness of everything.” His spirits lift when they find a park and he discovers familiar sights and sounds, including a pond with several frogs. On the journey home, they pass a bakery selling quesitos. Drifting off to sleep that night, Miguel realizes that San Juan will always be a part of him. Though some things are “definitely different in New York,” other things are “just the same.” 

  • Venn diagram

This book offers a wonderful opportunity to introduce young students to Venn diagrams. As a class, create a Venn diagram that compares Miguel’s life in San Juan and New York City. Be sure to leave enough room in the overlapping section in the center to list similarities. Use the diagram to spark a conversation about similarities and differences between cities around the world. If any of the students in your class are immigrants themselves, invite them to share experiences and traditions they remember from their home cities and to reflect on which experiences are different and which are “just the same” as their experiences in the United States.

  • Further reading

There is an abundance of wonderful books about children who leave home and move to another place. Extend Miguel’s experience by sharing more immigration stories with students. My favorites include Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa’s Islandborn, Aliki’s Marianthe’s Story, Riki Levinson and Diane Goode’s Watch the Stars Come Out and Thrity Umrigar and Khoa Le’s Sugar in Milk. For older readers, I recommend Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home and Bette Bao Lord and Marc Simon’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.

Leaving home is hard and many immigrants feel caught between two places and struggle to define what home means. As they validate how challenging adjusting to a new home can be, these three picture books offer hope for children who have immigrated to a new country and light for all those still in the opening chapters of their life’s story.;

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