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.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Why? Because it’s the season of book lists. I can never resist a book list. I love them. From cookbooks to coffee-table books, board books to biographies, memoirs to mysteries, I spend hours reading list after list.
In creating this list of my favorite books of 2020, I let delight drive my choices. These are the books I couldn’t wait to share with children. These are the books my students begged to borrow from our school library. These are the books that met us where we were but didn’t leave us there. These are the books that brought us comfort and joy in a year when we needed both.
by Kasya Denisevich
Imaginative and introspective, Neighbors reflects children’s sense of wonder about their place in the world and addresses existentialist questions with warmth and a touch of whimsy. One of my first graders spent a solid five minutes pointing out the details in the cutaway illustrations of the little girl’s apartment building.
Reminders of home
As soon as the little girl moves into her new apartment, she begins unpacking her special objects. Show students some personal items that make your classroom or house feel like home for you. Give students time to reflect on some objects or nontangible things (for example, a particular scent or a type of music) that make a place feel like “home” for them.
Lead a discussion to help students understand that these things can be comforting when they find themselves in a new place. Invite students to bring one of their “home objects” to share with the rest of the class. This reflection exercise will be particularly helpful for children who struggle with homesickness when they are away from home.
by Briony May Smith
Old-fashioned fantasy stories have become harder to find in the current picture book landscape, but children still want and need to be transported by tales of magic and myth. Shimmering with cozy cottages, wild and wondrous landscapes and cozy companionship, the story of Margaret and her unicorn makes for an enchanting escape.
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. 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 would do with their friend.
All Along the River
by Magnus Weightman
I begin every class with five minutes of a search-and-find book, an activity loved by students in all grades. It helps to focus their attention and provides for a seamless transition into our class read aloud. I use lots of different search-and-find books, but All Along the River’s roller-skating chickens and surprise ending have made it my students’ most beloved.
Can you find?
There is so much to spot in this book! Print out these checklists or create your own and let your students work individually or in pairs to find the items.
The All-Together Quilt
by Lizzy Rockwell
Based on an actual quilting group in Connecticut, The All-Together Quilt is an irresistible story of community and cross-generational relationships. After I read it aloud with my third graders, several students asked whether we could start our own quilting club. Oh, the power of a book!
Provide students with patterned paper, such as origami paper or other decorative sheets of paper available at craft and hobby stores, as well as scissors, paper punches, markers or crayons and glue. Give students time to create their own quilt blocks; Rockwell provides nine examples in the back of her book that you can use as jumping-off points. I provided older students with time to sketch their block designs before using the materials to create them. After the blocks are complete, invite each student to place their block on a large square piece of foam board to create a class quilt.
by Julia Denos
My students were entranced by this fantastical story of intergalactic friendship. After we read it, we pulled out our constellation books to see the real Eridanus constellation and its star named Acamar. Denos’ luminous watercolor and ink illustrations are sensational and inspired my students to create their own watercolor nightscapes.
Night sky art
Give students an opportunity to emulate Denos’ striking night skies with a resistance watercolor exploration. Watercolor sets or liquid watercolors work best for this activity.
Provide students with watercolor paper, white crayons or oil pastels and various star-shaped and round stickers. The inexpensive foil star stickers and punch-hole reinforcements I bought at a local office supply store worked wonderfully.
Using the white crayons and stickers, ask students to create constellations or a starry design on the watercolor paper. Then show them how to use a foam brush or thick watercolor paintbrush to paint over their design in shades of blue, green and purple. Incorporate color theory by telling students how to mix colors to create different shades, as well as how to control color intensity by using water.
After the paint is dry and the stickers are peeled off, the constellation designs will pop against the darker watercolor skies.
Our Favorite Day of the Year
by A.E. Ali,
illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell
Family traditions in a diverse community come together seamlessly in this classroom story that celebrates celebration. This book served as an important reminder for me that the most authentic and memorable way to learn is always child-centered. Sharing family traditions shows children the value and beauty to be found in every culture.
Favorite day bags
Ask students to think about their favorite day of the year. It can be an official holiday, but it can also be an informal day like the first day of school, the birthday of a personal hero or a specific observance such as National Pancake Day.
Have each student fill a brown paper lunch bag with items that explain or represent their favorite day. For the next few class meetings, allow students to share their favorite day bags and explain why this day is special for them and their family. Encourage students to add music or movement to their presentations.
Through the Wardrobe: How C.S. Lewis Created Narnia
by Lina Maslo
Pair this picture book biography with Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As Maslo focuses on the relationship between the events of Lewis’ childhood and the themes of Lewis’ most popular books, Maslo reminds readers how “the worst moments” in life are often what shape “the person you were meant to be.” In a year when many of us have wished we could escape reality through a magical wardrobe, this is a compelling story of resilience and imagination.
Explore the connection between the young evacuees whom Lewis hosted during World War II and the Pevensie siblings from Lewis’ Narnia books. Show students photographs from the English evacuation efforts and briefly explain why children had to flee English cities and leave their parents behind during the war. Use these two questions to guide an open-ended discussion:
World War II was a worldwide event that affected these children’s lives. How has the COVID-19 pandemic, another event experienced by people all around the world, affected your life today?
C.S. Lewis had difficult and challenging experiences when he was a child. How did these experiences influence the rest of his life? How do you think what you are experiencing right now will influence the rest of your life?
After the discussion, allow time for students to write or draw. Give each student an enveloped labeled “2020” to put their reflections in. Encourage them to put the envelope in a special place and revisit it in the future.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read
by Rita Lorraine Hubbard,
illustrated by Oge Mora
Mary Walker’s life epitomizes determination and tenacity. A testament to the power of reading, The Oldest Student captivated my students and prompted questions and discussions about the barriers African Americans have faced throughout history.
Emulate Oge Mora’s collage illustrations by inviting children to create greeting cards out of paper and words. Provide patterned and solid-colored paper, magazines, old maps and other ephemera. Use the cards to form intergenerational connections by sending them to a local senior center or assisted living facility.
Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party
by Yumi Heo,
illustrated by Naoko Stoop
With the timeless, classic feel of a fable, Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party gently shows young readers the limitations of our own perspectives. Sharing this transcendent and beautifully illustrated tale will broaden horizons and encourage students to consider what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes.
Begin by writing the names of two months on the board or on pieces of chart paper. Ask students to brainstorm how these months would view people, daily activities and the world. For example, “July believes that people always wear shorts and sandals, but January believes that people always wear snow boots and warm sweaters.”
When you’ve finished brainstorming, pair students up and let them create skits in which they act out the disagreement and resolution.
My Bed: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep Around the World
by Rebecca Bond,
illustrated by Salley Mavor
Stunning illustrations made with fabric and embroidery make this fascinating look at 12 international bedtimes an informative, innovative and immersive experience. It took me a full 15 minutes to read this book aloud because my students kept asking me to “go back” so that they could point out details in the meticulously handcrafted illustrations.
Provide art or collage supplies and give students time to create portraits of their bedrooms like the ones in the book. Challenge students to list five similarities between their bedrooms and the bedrooms depicted in the book.