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.
In his sometimes overlooked but oh-so-good collection, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, C.S. Lewis writes,
“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story . . . by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
The lives of the protagonists in these three picture books are changed when they are visited by the fantastical. Children understand that an alien spaceship will never land in a forest. They know that unicorns don’t exist and that the likelihood of a bear befriending a balloon is slim. But it’s through these mythical elements, through story, that truth is uncovered. The veil of familiarity lifts, and by looking through the lens of the imaginary, children can see the impact that one individual can have on the life of another. Each of us can add light, beauty and direction to someone else’s path, whether they’re someone we see every day or someone just passing through our life for a short season.
Lights on Wonder Rock
by David Litchfield
Young Heather, who has “read all about outer space, and how sometimes aliens came down to Earth and took people away in their spaceships,” longs to be taken away herself, so she sits on Wonder Rock and beams her flashlight into the night sky. Her wish is fulfilled when a flying saucer, bursting with light and radiant color, descends, and a friendly alien shuttles her off into space. But when she catches a glimpse of her worried parents on the ship’s monitor, Heather decides to return home. But she can’t forget her extraterrestrial encounter, and for decades, Heather continues to visit Wonder Rock in the hopes of reuniting with her alien friend. She tries various methods of signaling to the vessel, but all her attempts are unsuccessful. Just when Heather, who is now a grandmother, has lost almost all hope, the flying saucer reappears. As she catches the alien up on all the ways her life has changed since childhood, Heather realizes that hiding behind the veil of familiarity is the true magic of family and the love of her children and grandchildren.
- Gratitude jars
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have written, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not but rejoices for those which he has.” Share this with students and ask them to share their thoughts. Define the words grieve and rejoice for younger students. Ask open-ended guiding questions to help students form connections between Epictetus’ sentiment and Lights on Wonder Rock.
Invite students to create a gratitude jar. Provide ribbon, buttons, markers and other art supplies so they can personalize their jars. Designate “gratitude jar” time each day. Turn on soft music and let students write something they are grateful for on a small slip of paper. Provide examples so that students understand they can write something big and intangible, like the love of a family member, or something small and tangible, like finding a special rock during recess. Encourage children to write something different each day. At the end of a month, let students open their jars and read all their slips. This daily exercise will cultivate a mindset of thankfulness that will last students a lifetime.
- Illustration narration
Several of the pages in Lights on Wonder Rock are wordless, so readers must “read” the illustrations. If possible, display a few panels or wordless spreads and let students narrate aloud what they think is happening in the illustration. Invite them to elaborate using prompts such as, “What makes you say that?” or “Tell us more about . . .” This simple organic visual thinking exercise build students’ oral, comprehension and inference skills.
Provide time for older students to research aliens and society’s endless fascination with all things extraterrestrial. With younger students, read additional science fiction picture books that feature UFOs and aliens.
by Briony May Smith
When her family moves “to a faraway place, to a cottage in the mountains, to be near Grandma,” Margaret is unsure about her new home with its different smells and empty spaces. While her parents unpack, Margaret ventures out to explore the area around the cottage. On her return journey, she discovers a baby unicorn tangled in the weeds and takes it home. Over the next year, Margaret and the young unicorn become close companions, experiencing all the delights of their small mountain village together. They chase waves along the rocky beach, decorate a Christmas tree, build snow unicorns and enjoy picnics under the apple tree. With each passing season, Margaret feels less lonely and becomes happier in her new home. When spring returns, the unicorn’s mother comes back for him and the two friends must say goodbye. As she hugs her small friend, Margaret whispers, “Please don’t forget me.” Readers will be delighted to discover that he doesn’t. Margaret’s Unicorn is a warmhearted and timeless story that shimmers with the magical power of companionship.
- Relationship reflection
The baby unicorn helped Margaret adjust to her new surroundings. Ask students to think about a time when they felt lonely or scared and they were comforted by a family member, friend or animal. Begin a discussion that leads children to understand how loneliness or fear of the unknown can be assuaged by the presence of a companion. Pair students up and let them share a time when someone or something else helped them feel less alone.
- Imaginary adventures
Living in the country and finding a baby unicorn who eats flowers and drinks water touched by moonlight was the stuff my dreams were made of when I was in elementary school (and let’s be honest, are still). Invite students to create the imaginary friend of their dreams.
Use this as a creative writing exercise for older students. Encourage them to include details about their friend’s appearance, appetite, sleeping habits and personality. For younger students, provide a plethora of art supplies and let them create a visual representation of their friend. Extend the activity by asking students to describe four meaningful seasonal activities they will do with their friend.
The Bear and the Moon
by Matthew Burgess,
illustrated by Catia Chien
A red balloon catches the attention of a young black bear cub. Fascinated by its light, buoyant movement, the bear grabs hold of the balloon’s string and ties it to a stone. When the sun rises, the bear gives his new friend “a tour of his whereabouts.” After the pair climbs a tree, rolls down a hill and sits next to a waterfall, the bear hugs the balloon and it pops. Grief-stricken, the bear feels guilt and shame (“Bad Bear, he thought”) until he is touched by the light of the moon and the moon tells him, “Good bear. Kind bear. Don’t worry, bear,” and his heavy heart is lifted. Simply told but deep with transcendent truth, The Bear and the Moon demonstrates the value of shared grief and the importance of forgiving ourselves.
- Balloon play
The Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori famously declared, “Play is the work of the child.” Provide a helium-filled red balloon on a string to each student and have some fun emulating the bear’s balloon play.
- Paired reading
After sharing The Bear and the Balloon, share Komako Sakai’s Emily’s Balloon. Ask younger students to articulate first some similarities between the two books, then some differences between them. Create Venn diagrams with older students and ask them to compare the two books independently.
Bear’s grief turned into feelings of guilt and shame and negative internal dialogue. Begin a discussion by asking, “Why is being kind and forgiving of ourselves important?” and “How can we practice overcoming negative thoughts about ourselves?”
Bear’s internal thoughts are reset and his spirit is restored by the moon. Remind students that sometimes self-doubt and despair can’t be overcome solely through our own efforts, and when we have a “heavy heart,” it’s important to reach out to a family member or a friend. “Good bear. Kind bear. Don’t worry, bear” is the moon’s message for the bear. Help students create a short mantra they can recite to themselves when they are feeling self-doubt or sadness.