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.
Driving home one night, I stopped at a red light behind an SUV. Because it was dark outside, I had a clear view of its two flip-down television screens, and I decided to try to determine which animated movie or TV show the passengers were watching. I looked for a familiar character or setting—an image of Woody or Buzz, or perhaps a city street built with Legos.
The light turned green before I could figure it out, but I thought about the animation’s fast pace for the rest of my drive home. In the brief time that we were stopped together, I saw several characters with animal-ish features and oversize eyes, a couple of explosions, an underwater scene and what looked like some type of monster or . . . dinosaur?
Child psychiatrists Jay N. Giedd and Judith L. Rapoport assert that 95% of brain development and growth happens before a child turns 6 years old. Babies are born with all their brain cells, but the connections formed between these cells are what enable the brain to function. During a child’s first 5 years, the brain forms at least a million new neural connections as it grows. These connections, created through daily experiences, build upon each other and provide a strong foundation for more complex thinking and learning. After the brain is finished growing, it is harder to form new neural connections or to break existing ones.
What are the short- and long-term effects of hours of fast-paced media consumption on children? What happens when a developing brain is saturated by a steady stream of rapidly changing images designed to capture and keep a child’s attention—for the primary purpose of maintaining either the value of ad sales or a reliable subscription-based income? How and why has the visual pacing of children’s audiovisual media increased over time? If you think it hasn’t, watch a few minutes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” then flip to whatever’s currently airing on the Cartoon Network. Thoughts?
In my library classroom over the past decade, I have noticed a steady decline in my students’ ability to focus independently. Looking page by page through a picture book is a skill most children do not possess when they begin kindergarten. I usually spend the first four months of each school year teaching my kindergarteners how to look independently at a picture book. It’s a painstaking process, but by winter break, the children develop strong visual thinking habits. For example, they know how to use a book’s cover to make predictions about the story. They notice a book’s front and back endpapers. They can identify the title page and know that sometimes, the story begins on the title page. They can “read” the pictures, even if they can’t yet read the words.
One of my favorite habit-forming activities is to give each student a familiar picture book. After they read the pictures, I prompt them, “Find your favorite illustration and study it for 30 seconds. What small details can you discover?” After a quiet and focused 30 seconds, the students practically burst with excitement and eagerness to share what they discovered. This quick visual thinking exercise gives children the time and tools they need savor illustrations, but I don’t expect them to do it with every illustration and every book.
How can picture study translate to longer periods of independent focus? How can illustrated books increase a child’s mental stamina and attention span? Seek-and-find books are one excellent way to do this. The four books below span a wide audience range, and their range of format and content is just as wide. But all four share a few elements in common. They’re all imports, originally published outside of the United States; the challenge and thrill of a seek-and-find transcends continents and cultures. They also all incorporate a seek-and-find challenge within a larger narrative or conceptual context. As children search for characters, animals and artwork, they will also be strengthening their mental stamina and learning more about the world and its people.
All Around Bustletown: Summer
by Rotraut Susanne Berner
It’s summertime, and the people of Bustletown are fully embracing the season. Karen serves cool treats from her ice cream cart; Ellen and her son, Tommy, watch the construction of the new school; and babysitter Silva keeps the kids occupied with a trip to the museum and a picnic. The playgrounds are full, and the roads and train station are busy with vacationers. A sudden summer thunderstorm pops up but passes in time for everyone to make it to the park for Cara’s birthday party.
Readers can trace storylines of characters identified on the book’s back cover through each of the seven oversize colorful spreads. Children will love diving deep into the book’s detailed illustrations and searching for the mouse who is hiding on each page. In the spirit of Richard Scarry, this German import welcomes children into a bustling community that will capture both their attention and their heart.
- Phonic practice
Its oversize dimensions make All Around Bustletown: Summer ideal for buddy reading. Emergent and early readers can work on their phonics through an I Spy activity. The activity can be adjusted in conjunction with current classroom learning or targeted to specific skills for students who need reinforcements. Laminate the activity cards and keep them in tucked in the cover of the book.
- Oral narration
Partner narration is an effective and natural way for young learners to develop and refine strong speaking and listening skills. Invite children to choose one of the Bustletown characters identified on the back cover. Starting with the first spread, children will locate their character in each illustration and narrate what they think is happening with the character’s story to their partner. Encourage the listening partner to ask questions that encourage elaboration.
Everybody Counts: A Counting Story From 0 to 75
by Kristin Roskifte
This import won several awards in its home country of Norway, and it’s easy to see why. Beginning with “no one” in a forest, it takes readers on a counting journey in individual increments up to 30 and then in larger increments that culminate with “seven and a half billion people on the same planet.” Author-illustrator Kristin Roskifte interweaves small human narratives into the numerical progression. For example, there are a hundred people in the schoolyard. Readers learn that “One of them will soon fall and get hurt. One of them will develop a vaccine that saves millions of lives.”
Astute readers will pick out the clues Roskifte provides and begin to make associations and connections within the illustrations. An illustrated grid at the end of the book asks about “secrets” that require flipping back through the book to hunt for the answers. Roskifte intersperses these search-and-find questions with more philosophical questions that include “Does everyone share the same truth?” and “What is outside our universe?” Is Everybody Counts a counting book or a seek-and-find book? Is it a celebration of humanity or a philosophical primer? It’s all of the above and more, a brilliantly composed and crafted picture book that will keep children engaged for hours.
- Puzzle drawings
Gather two boxes and label them “Numbers” and “Feelings.” Place folded slips of paper with various numbers and feeling words in the respective boxes, and let children take a slip from each box. Children will use their slips to create a page in the style of the book. Each page will contain the number and two sentences that give clues about what is happening in the picture. The feeling word must be incorporated into one of the sentences. Allow time for students to share their puzzle drawings with each other.
- Act of kindness
Write the lines of the last page of the book on the board: “Seven and a half billion people on the same planet. Every single one of them has their own unique story. Everybody counts. One of them is you!” Take time to discuss these lines with students. Ask open-ended questions to ensure that children do most of the talking. Afterward, extend the book’s central theme and encourage children to commit a few intentional acts of kindness for others. Check in with students through the next few weeks to hear about their experiences.
All Along the River
by Magnus Weightman
Bunny and her two brothers are playing in the river at the base of a glacier “high above the clouds.” When Bunny’s toy duck floats away, the trio goes after it in their little red boat. Their pursuit takes them on a river journey through forests, meadowlands, marshes, waterfalls, fields of flowers and past various buildings and and other structures. The two-page spreads are full of detail and a feeling of purposeful busy-ness. Readers will enjoy searching for the toy duck and the story’s other readily identifiable anthropomorphic animal characters, including the Road Hogs and Chuck, a roller-skating chicken. A surprise ending makes it impossible to resist turning back to the book’s beginning for another journey along the river.
- River research
The river takes Little Duck and her crew from “way high in the clouds” all the way “out to sea.” The back endpapers contain an aerial view of the river that shows all the different biomes it passes through on its way out to sea. Read more about rivers and their journey to the sea, or research some rivers of the world.
- Can you find?
There is so much to spot in this book! Print out these checklists, or create your own and let children work individually or in pairs to find the items.
What a Masterpiece!
by Riccardo Guasco
Originally published in Italy, this wordless story follows a boy on a journey through recognizable pieces of Western art. The boy wakes up in his Vincent Van Gogh-esque bedroom by a Salvador Dali clock, descends an M.C. Escher staircase and is followed to the bathroom by a shadow that resembles a statue by Alberto Giocometti. The boy ends his pilgrimage at a large sculpture composed of pieces and parts of the artworks he encountered during his journey. A key in the back of the book provides detailed information about each work of art that will prompt students to go back and identify each iconic piece.
- Mix and match
Print, laminate and cut out Masterpiece Artwork Cards. Put them in a plastic bag or envelope labeled “Can you match the masterpieces?” Invite children to work individually or with a partner to match the photos of the art with events in the book.
- Masterpiece mashup
Provide several books about fine arts and allow time for students to peruse them until they find a piece of art that that captures their attention. In the spirit of Guasco’s story, invite students to create a piece of art that incorporates or alludes to their chosen masterpiece. Provide different art mediums (colored paper, pastels, graphite pencils, markers, clay and so on) for children to use. Older students can write a story to go along with their mashup, or they can research and provide more information on their chosen piece of art and its artist.