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
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?
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?
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
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
- 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.