Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Patrick Andrus

Come With Me

Sometimes a picture book comes along at the perfect moment and touches each and every reader.  That is exactly what occurred with Holly McGhee’s picture book Come with Me. 

By the way, the title of this blog post comes directly from Holly’s picture book Come with Me.  I tried to come up with something new and different, but this title fits so well with both the book and what I want to write about.  I thought why not stick with what works and what to me is perfection. 

I received a copy of Come with Me from the author herself.  I remember being amazed and touched by the text and illustrations.  It was obvious that this would be a picture book that I would use with my students. 

Our first experience with the book occurred the last week of September.  I shared with my fourth graders how I came to know both Holly and her newest work of fiction.  If I can share a personal experience about either an author and/or book, it becomes more meaningful to my listeners. 

The first time we shared the text, I read through its entirety.  After I finished, the listeners shared their “noticing” and “wondering” statements.  This is a new strategy I began during last year and found it powerful, engaging, and purposeful. 

We then did a second reading and stopped throughout the book to talk about specific pages, passages, and illustrations.  I was amazed at how quickly the fourth graders were able to grasp the meaning, message, and theme of the story.  They GOT it!   We talked about various real-life events that had happened and how it is important to be brave and courageous during these difficult times. 

The next day we shared the story again and following the reading, my writers got busy writing their own versions of Come with Me.  They could use Holly’s version as a mentor text and/or write what they do, or could do, during times of stress, anger, or fear.  It was astonishing how quickly they headed off to their writing spots and put the pencil to paper.  I wasn’t sure what I would get, but was anxious to see their writing product. 

I wish I had the time, and space, to share some of the writing here; but know each writer shared a personal version of what the story meant to them, what they could do to make the world a better place, or fictional version.  The sharing of our writing was a beautiful experience and I could tell the “products” were meaningful to each young writing. 

The following week our country experienced the largest mass shooting in our history.  As we discussed it during our morning meeting, several students shared personal stories and/or connections.  During one of these discussions, I glanced over at the book tray and saw Come with Me.  The feeling I had at the moment hit me like a ton of bricks.  This was the picture book we needed at that very moment. 

I told the class I was going to reread Come with Me.  When I finished, I looked out into the faces of my beautiful fourth graders and had to take a moment to compose myself.  They got it and commented that Holly had written the book for times just like what we were all experiencing at this very moment.  I’m not sure I have ever felt such a powerful and heart-felt community reaction as I did then.

Our first Skype session of the year was with Holly McGhee.  It occurred on Wednesday, October 11th.  We learned that one student in our class was neighbors with a man who lost his life in Las Vegas.  Her mother commented to me that her daughter had shared about the picture book and the writing we had done.  The student had the opportunity to share this with the author herself.

During our conversation with Holly, the fourth grade writers were able to share their comments and/or questions with her.  It was a bit “eerie” and “surreal” that Holly and Pascal had created this picture book way before the Las Vegas incident, and now we were discussing how the book and the real-life event were so closely tied. 

A few of my writers had the opportunity to share their own writing with Holly.  I was so proud of them at that moment and could tell that Holly herself was truly touched by their words.  I’ve had some incredible Skype visits in the past, but this particular one took it to a whole new level. 

Patrick Andrus and Holly McGhee

Picture books can change the world.  They can change the way we view events, incidents, and people.  They can also change how we choose to respond to a horrific, tragic, and upsetting news story that we all witness via the nighty news. 

I want to thank Holly and Pascal for giving teachers, and other readers, this important picture book.  I want them to know what a difference a piece of literature like this can do for both educators like myself and the students we work with on a daily basis. 

My invitation to my fourth grade readers and writers is to “Come with Me” on this journey we will take together.  I want us to experience the magic, the meaning, and the experience that picture books can offer us. 

Won’t you “Come with Me” also?!?

What the listeners/writers thought...

Grace - I thought this story was brilliant because violence is happening right now and when Mr. Andrus read the story, I somehow felt safe.

Horacio - I thought this story was amazing because it was about not living in fear.

Kadie - Something I learned from this story was that fear isn't the answer because if you live in fear you’re showing the world they have won.

Audrey - Something I learned from this story was even if something pulls you down, you can get back up if you have courage because no one can tell you to go down if you have courage.

Hunter - I thought this story was sad, but was also hopeful. 


Patrick Andrus is a fourth grade teacher in Eden Prairie, MN.  His number one goal for his students is to create an internal passion for reading and books.  This is his 27th year of teaching.  He loves to use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to connect with all the incredible educators out there.  He makes sure that his class participates in #classroombookaday.  You can find his blog by visiting  He is also an active member on Twitter as @patrickontwit. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Dr. Mary Howard

Seeing With New Eyes 

When Kurt Stroh invited me to write about the power of picture books and a book that has had a tremendous impact on my life, a virtual celebratory explosion of gorgeous images instantly flashed overhead with one looming large at the center of my enormous stack. Without hesitation, I knew the book I wanted to spotlight and I was grateful to be able to share what it means to me. But before I tell you the book that literally changed my life forever, I’d like to give you a glimpse of the surprising twists and turns of my reading journey; a lengthy journey that ever so slowly ignited a love affair with books that lingers still today.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing educators happily share their inspirational stories of reading love that began in childhood and escalated into a lifelong passion. Their stories of book joy warmed my heart and yet they also raised a certain level of guilt-ridden angst because they awakened memories of the book desert where I resided throughout my school years. As an educator, those memories became a dirty little secret I was afraid to divulge – and so I didn’t.

You see I now share their unwavering love of books, but my book union began much later in life. Maybe it was because I started school in the mid 1950s when bathing kids in books wasn’t deemed a priority or maybe I just got the unfortunate luck of the teacher draw. And although I was blessed with remarkable parents, visions of family book rituals and memories happily curled under the covers gripping my reader flashlight simply wasn’t my childhood experience. My Dad devoured books about the military and wild west and my mother started each day reading a newspaper, magazine, or cookbook –– but books weren’t part of my day-to-day reality. Quite honestly, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would pick up a book on purpose unless required to do so. Read for pleasure! Who does that?

But then a book door cracked open in 1972 when I became a teacher and the book dating stage of my reading life began. I didn’t want my shameful reading history to taint the lives of my amazing special education students so I immersed them in picture books with great fervor. Dramatic oral renditions of books within enthusiastic read-alouds were my daily battle cry. From the first day to the last, books burst across the four corners of my room and became the beating heart of our learning day. Yet I still felt like a phony since I knew that I was probably more motivated by ensuring my students had a different childhood experience than my own than by my desire to truly fall in love with books with uninhibited abandon.

Then in 1977, my book life was forever altered when Jane Yolen published a Chinese fairy tale called “The Seeing Stick.” I still vividly recall the first time I read her exquisite book in a quiet corner of a tiny bookstore. I was conflicted by the stoic Emperor who loved his daughter but couldn’t cry for her. I was mesmerized by the old man who taught the blind princess to see in a new way. Chills ran through my body when I read that the princess grew eyes on the tips of her fingers as she touched carved images on the seeing stick while listening to the old man’s stories. I gasped out loud when I discovered that the old man was blind as tears streamed down my face and a flood of emotions washed over me. It was the first time any book had gripped me by the heart strings and refused to let go and I was held captive under the spell of book joy I had never known before.

In that defining moment five years into my teaching career, my love affair with picture books began (or perhaps was just awakened from hibernation). Just as the old man used his stick to teach the blind princess to see with new eyes, Jane Yolen’s exquisite words coupled with the visual prowess of Remy Charlip and Demetra Maraslis taught me to see reading through new eyes. In one memorable experience, an unabashed love affair with picture books began and continues to flame the spark of book joy that began in 1977.

The original book is no longer in print but a new version was published in 2009 and illustrator Daniella Janglenko Terrazzini brings Jane Yolen’s words to life once again. I love the new version, but the 1977 edition is still closest to my heart because this is the book that first awakened a love I never knew existed. I pull out my 1977 miracle often to relive that moment in a quiet book store so many years ago and I continue to share it with teachers and children whenever I can.

Another winding path of my reading joy journey took place as my love for picture books and my mother unexpectedly collided when Alzheimer’s cruelly entered our lives. As my mother’s memories faded from view, picture books pulled them back and encircled our love for each other. Reading picture books to my mother became a ritual I treasured and the book that captivated me twenty years earlier always made its way to top of our stack. Picture books allowed us to hold on tight to memories dissipating from our reach and offered glimmers of hope; however fleeting. Picture books became a reflection of love that glistened in my mother’s eyes and reached out to embrace us both in reading joy again and again.

So, do I believe in the power of pictures books? Well they saved this child from a lifelong sentence confined to a book desert with no hope of an escape. They allowed me to hold on to my mother’s memories in the dark years just a bit longer. They are my companions when I’m lonely and awaken emotions like nothing else can. And they continue to make my heart pound each time I share a beautiful picture book with children.

In the story, the blind old man says, “I am going to show you my stick. For it is no ordinary piece of wood but a stick that sees.” Because of a single piece of golden wood, a blind old man, a blind princess and a brilliant author and illustrators, I too see what so many others saw long before me – the power of picture books at any age. Jane Yolen literally altered the trajectory of my reading journey…

And I am forever changed!

Books Referenced
The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen, illustrators Remy Charlip and Demetra Maraslis Crowell; First Edition (1977)

The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen, Illustrator Daniella Janglenko Terrazzini Running Press Kids; Reprint edition (2009) 


Mary Howard is a powerhouse literacy consultant and author. She has been described as a “teachers’ teacher” with insight into the realities of schools and a unique ability to translate research into practice. An educator for over four decades, Mary combines extensive experience as a special education, Title 1 and Reading RecoveryTM teacher and continues to provide in-school support as a literacy consultant and coach. She is the author of three books from Heinemann including RTI from All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know (2009) and Good to Great Teaching: Focusing on the Literacy Work that Matters (2012). 

Mary also co-moderates #G2Great Twitter chat every Thursday night @DrMaryHoward with Jenn Hayhurst and Amy Brennan and can be found on Facebook at Mary C Howard.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Don Tate

I love picture books! They are the doorway to literacy. But to eight-year-old Don Tate, that doorway felt like an unwelcome place.

When I was a kid, books didn’t attract or hold my attention. I struggled with comprehension. I couldn’t always remember what I’d read. Plus, reading had to compete with what I loved best—drawing and making things with my hands. Most of all, I think, because the majority of books featured white characters, I thought of them as being, first and foremost, for white people. I mean, beyond THE SNOWY DAY and other books by Ezra Jack Keats, there was DICK AND JANE, and a whole lot of walking, talking animal books. Oh, and Dr. Seus.

My favorite picture book was our Better Homes & Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia, because, well, who doesn’t enjoy an illustrated in-grown toe nail? I also loved our Funk & Wagnalls Young Student’s Encyclopedias, too. They featured stories, drawings, and photographs of all kinds of people. Brown people! In books—I felt welcome to enter that place.

In my early twenties, I finally became a reader. I was working at an educational publishing company when, one day, I discovered the book BLACK BOY by Richard Wright. Of course that title caught my attention. It was a book about a Black family. The main character was a Black kid. The kid was trying to understand and navigate the complications of life and race in his mostly white, Southern world. I could relate, that book was me! I finished reading that book, and I then read all of Richard Wright’s books—which led me to read books by Gordon Parks, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, Nathan McCall, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Tananarive Due. I was finally a reader.

As an author and illustrator of picture books, I want to do the same thing for young children that Richard Wright did for me: I want to inspire a lifelong love of reading—and therefore learning. I want to create picture books that create a welcome doorway to literacy for all kids, but especially brown kids who are often underrepresented in books.

When the world suggest that the color black is negative, I have just the picture book: BLACK ALL AROUND! (Lee & Low Books), which celebrates the beautiful color of black (and brown, and every color in between).

When the world proves unjust, I have just the picture book: RONS BIG MISSION (Penguin), which tells the real life story of Ron McNair, a Black child who influenced great change in his community by protesting the injustice he experienced at his neighborhood library.

When the world places limits on a child’s dreams, I have just the picture book: WHOOSH! LONNIE JOHNSON’S SUPER-SOAKING STREAM OF INVENTIONS (Charlesbridge). It tells the story of a child who liked to tinker, who grew up to invent the world’s most loved toy.

I even have a picture book called STRONG AS SANDOW, who was a Victorian strongman and “Father of Bodybuilding.” He was not Black—but hey, young readers and future authors, don’t place limits on yourself, write what you want!

Through picture books, I can tell the stories that 8-year-old Don Tate needed to hear—the true stories of African-American poets, artists, sports figures, politicians, inventors, orators, and more—stories that allow kids of color to see themselves, blasting that doorway to literacy and learning wide open.


Don Tate is the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children. In 2013, he earned an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Award for his first picture book text, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012). In 2016, he won The Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Book Award for Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015), his first authored and illustrated picture book. That book received a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, a Christopher Award, and a 2016 Texas Institute of Letters book award, among others. In 2016, he was also honored with an Illumine Award given by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. Don enjoys visiting elementary schools throughout the country, sharing his literary experiences with children ( Don lives in Austin, Texas, where he enjoys visiting elementary schools.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Aliza Werner

When I was born, a pink-cheeked rag doll wearing sky blue overalls was placed in my crib. Her blue bonnet circled her face, and her blue eyes had a permanent twinkle in them. She unsurprisingly was formally named Blue Doll, but went by her nickname, Bluie. For years, she never left my side.

She was there for every car ride, vacation, and bedtime.
She was my plaything, my confidant, my friend, and my security.
I soothed my fears and blotted my tears, chewing on the tip of her bonnet.
She’s traveled the world and gone to college.

After many years of love and hugs and an unfortunate incident that had her on the spin cycle in the washing machine, her fabric has faded, her legs are precariously attached, and a hole the size of my worries gapes in her bonnet. No one brought me more comfort, knew more of my secrets, or was more of a friend to her introverted person than Bluie. A doll made of no more than fabric, cotton stuffing, and a bit of rubber was, and still is, priceless to me. Despite the Fisher Price product tag dangling from her leg, I knew then, as I do now, that there is only one Bluie in the world. Many people do not know this, but I do…

The world may think she is just a worn out rag doll. To me, she has always been real.

Last year, I read a picture book that perfectly described how a child’s doll or imaginary friend can exist in a space that blurs imagination and reality. It defies definition. In Henry & Leo by Pamela Zagarenski, a young boy, Henry, loses his stuffed lion, Leo, one day in the woods. As his mother tucks him into bed, he worries:

“Leo will be scared,” Henry told his mother.
“Henry, Leo is not real. He is real only in your imagination,” said Mama…

Henry knew that his family just didn’t understand what it truly meant to be real. To Henry, Leo was as real as his mother, his father, and his sister. As real as a tree, a cloud, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the wind. As real as a flower, a bee, a bird, a fox, a pebble, a brook, an ocean, or a whale. Leo was his best friend. Like a brother. They loved each other. They took care of each other. That’s real.

This resonated within me like a heartbeat. As adults, we read fantasies and fairy tales to our children, all of us aware of their fiction. But the undeniable magic of picture books transpires when we recognize that fictional characters ignite authentic feelings in readers.

Picture books transcend their fiction when a reader’s emotional response is very, very real.

Picture books are not just good for our imaginations, they are necessary for our hearts.

Picture books are a rehearsal for life. They give children a chance to experience feelings of joy, loss, and wonder in a safe space, before trying them out in the world.

We read to children about...
Elephants and piggies, so they understand the dynamics of friendship.
Mice with purple plastic purses, so they know tomorrow is another day.
Jabari jumping off the diving board, so they can face their fears.
Most people, so they realize there is more good than evil in this world.
Each kindness, so they see that words and inaction have consequences.
Worms loving other worms, so they recognize that love is love.
A bus on Market Street, so they are grateful for the beauty in everyday moments.
Dennis and Joy, so they learn how to be a friend.
Keyana loving her hair, so they have mirrors of their lives and windows to others’.
Land narwhals and sea unicorns, so they can smash labels and be their true selves.
Ten good things about Barney, so they discover that loss and death is a part of life.
Humpty Dumpty after his fall, so they witness resilience.
Knights who slay dragons, so they can slay their own dragons someday.
The child who loses his stuffed lion, so they believe that he is worth finding.

There is a moment in Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle when Beekle is finally imagined by his human friend Alice. Through their play and adventures “the world began to feel a little less strange”. And isn’t that what we want for all of our children? To say the world can be overwhelming and immense and intimidating, but it can also be big and wide and wonderful. So, hold tight to your Bluie, your Beekle, your Leo.

Let’s practice facing and embracing the world together.

Let’s read a picture book.

“Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” -The Velveteen Rabbit


Aliza Werner (@alizateach) is a 3rd grade teacher in Southeastern Wisconsin. She serves on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee. Aliza is a Curriculum Writer at Milwaukee Film, and also does year-round work on their Youth Education and Children’s Film Screening Committees. You can read more of her writing on her collaborative blog Classroom Communities. She is passionate about building diverse classroom libraries that provide all children with windows and mirrors, and she is a fierce advocate for choice, access, and time to read. World traveler, reader, photographer, dog mom, and wife.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Dev Petty

I love picture books.  It's sincere.  I love reading them, writing them, talking about name it.  So when a fine person like Kurt asked if I'd write a little about the power of picture books, he had me at “Hey, Dev...”

With so many posts out there about the power of picture books for kids- many of which I've myself written, I thought I'd go in a different direction and talk about the power of picture books for those a little longer in the tooth, like me. 

Of course, before I became a writer, my main adult relationship with picture books was as a parent, reading them to my kids, stack after stack.  I was thrilled that they loved books and pictures so much, and welcomed getting to curl on the couch and just read instead of playing “these thirty-eight tiny dolls need to get dressed for a ball that will never happen” again. 

What I discovered reading all those picture books, and what I'd forgotten from my own childhood, is how joyful it is to have an idea distilled to its elements. There is something wonderful about a clear idea and applicable message, the same way I glean so much from wonderful quotes.  What grownup doesn't benefit from remembering that,“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.” or that you can be a bull and choose not to fight, or that you can get over getting dirt on your new shoes.  We're supposed to know all that stuff, we're grownups.  But you know what?  We forget.  We're busy, we're inundated with news, sometimes we're exhausted, overworked, or overwhelmed. 

The Missing Piece reminds me to enjoy the journey, to slow down.  The Lost Thing reminds me to look for the unique things in the world and enjoy differences.  The Last Stop on Market Street reminds me to consider the richness of life and relationships instead of things.  The Big Orange Splot reminds me to be myself and not care what others think.  Extra Yarn reminds me of the magic in the world and how small gestures can create big change. 

Are there novels that convey these ideas?  Yes.  I read those novels and I love those novels.  But as we aim to impart ideas, and not just plots to our kids, it helps to have beautiful, short books that shout through the noise and ring our bells a little.  Growing up, after all, isn't just a series of plot twists and cliff hangers.  Picture books can remind us who we wanted to be as parents and adults, friends, and caregivers. 

It's easy to put those old picture books in a box- whether after we grow up or when our kids move onto chapter books and longer novels.  But I'll urge you to keep them around.  For them to page through, or you.  They will make you smile and remind you of things you're supposed to know and sometimes still forget.  


Dev Petty is the author of CLAYMATES, I DON'T WANT TO BE A FROG, and many more picture books to come.  Her latest, THERE'S NOTHING TO DO, is the third in the Frog series- It's a silly look at what Frog does and doesn't do with a free day.

Dev was a Visual Effects artist on the Matrix Trilogy and dozens of other projects before becoming a parent and picture book writer.  She lives in the SF Bay Area with her family and critters.  She also makes a fine sandwich and is very good at word jumbles.  

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Travis Crowder

Picture Books and the Humanities

Children love stories. They are intrigued and compelled by them. My classroom library is home to quite a few of the picture books I read and loved as a child, and even now, as a teacher, I share these books with kids. The books are yellowed with age and crinkled from use; twenty-five years since I first held them, students are still captivated by the stories, the images, and the experience. I love beginning the year with a picture book, something like Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss or Happy Dreamer by Peter Reynolds. The magic of the story envelopes readers and I see the delight in their faces as they are entranced by the narrative, the characters, and the events.  Wolfenbarger and Sipe (2007) mention the unique visual and literary art form that picture books provide, engaging students in many levels of learning and pleasure (273). Even as kids mature, they still enjoy children’s literature. When I read one of these books aloud to them, they sit mesmerized by the story line, by the characters, and readily tell me when they didn’t get a chance to see the picture. The magical quality never ceases to amaze me.      

Considering their love of picture books, it is not surprising that an abundance of my current students adore graphic novels, enjoying the fusion of text and image. The graphic novel section of my classroom library has grown exponentially since last year. Students read them, pass them to their peers, and book talk them extemporaneously. Curious about their reading decisions, I asked about their desire for graphic novels, and almost every one of them explained that the addition of images gave them a deeper insight into the book. They loved the images paired with text. When I considered their love of picture books and their adoration of graphic novels, I knew I had to give them a chance to attempt writing in this genre. It would be an exercise and they would need guidance, but in the end, I knew they would enjoy it.    

In addition to teaching English/Language Arts, I am also a social studies teacher. Recently, we finished studying the Renaissance and Reformation, and throughout the unit, students were avidly interested in the Black Death, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Queen Elizabeth I, and the fire of London in 1666. This period of history, like many others, is rich with imagery. Queen Elizabeth’s colorful presence and life, Shakespeare’s creativity and imagination, Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite art, and Michelangelo’s sleight of hand captivated my students. They adored the research, the projects, the group discussion, and our class-wide collaboration. One afternoon, while seated in front of my computer, I began thinking about students’ love of graphic novels, their interest in children’s literature, and their interest in our Renaissance and Reformation unit. Could these students take a topic and turn it into a graphic novel or picture book? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely worth a try.        
Before this year, I had never given thought to bringing picture books into the classroom as an instructional tool. Sure, I would read them aloud, use them to teach theme or characterization, or start the year with a tantalizing book, such as Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss or Happy Dreamer by Peter Reynolds. But this was an application that I hadn’t quite considered: asking students to create their own.

First, I read several picture books to them, asking that they jot down things they noticed about the structure, not the content. These things included word-to-picture ratios, sentence length, image and text placement, and so on. Then, I asked them to look at the content, but from a writer’s point of view. Here, we discussed word choice, targeted audience, and writing voice. I have often been guilty of underestimating the abilities of my students, thinking that they were incapable of identifying qualities such as these. However, I was enthralled (and even surprised!) to see them grappling with these decisions, thinking seriously before filling out the Google Form.

Next, I asked them to choose a topic from the Renaissance or Reformation that they could create a picture book about. “Your job,” I said, “is to write a picture book that would explain this topic to an elementary-age child. Decide if you want to write a book for kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and so on. Then, I want you to decide what structure you want to follow. Choose a picture book--either one in my classroom, one in the media center, or one you love--to guide your thinking about this assignment.” Their excitement was almost palpable.    

Tom Newkirk, in Minds Made for Stories (2014), noted that we are compelled by a storyline, by people, characters, “actors”, who are moving through the narrative, whether they are real or imagined. As readers, we seek conflict or problems within the story, and in the end, we want a resolution. I used Newkirk’s idea to guide their thinking and writing during this assignment.

Before constructing their picture books, I asked them to outline the narrative on a storyboard. They were to consider the images and text that would be necessary for their targeted audience.  

PB Storyboard 1.jpeg

PB Storyboard 2.jpeg

Storyboards are great for collecting ideas and determining a “route” for the story. Even though these were nonfiction, I wanted them to use Newkirk’s definition of a story, where characters or people, whether real or imagined, are introduced, experience a conflict, and seek a solution to that conflict. This was a bit of a challenge, but through writing conferences (even in social studies!) and with peer feedback, they developed wonderful stories.

After storyboarding, I gave them options for their picture book. They were welcome to use Google Slides, treating each slide as a different page in the book, Pixton, a comic strip maker, Canva, a designer’s dream, or another platform that they felt would work.

PB Photo 1.jpeg

PB Photo 2.jpeg

The creation of the picture book was where the preponderance of the work was focused. I loved watching them build their own stories, paying careful attention to the details of craft for the younger readers they targeted. They squinted at their computer screens as they worked feverishly to find symmetry and balance with pictures and text. I noticed them consulting with peers to find the right word, asking if their phrasing and explanations were appropriate for their targeted audience. After a week of watching and guiding my kids as they modified elevated topics for the reading pleasure of elementary-age students, I was thrilled to see their final products. Ariya’s comic book told the story of Queen Elizabeth I, Kaylee’s Google Slides picture book followed a child through the Sistine Chapel, and Trace’s narrator took a trip with William Shakespeare through London. Several students used their chosen mentor texts closely, using the sentence structure as a guide throughout their picture book. For example, Isaiah loved If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and used the “if, then” format to structure his picture book. If first page read: “If you give Leonardo da Vinci some paint and brushes, he might paint a masterpiece.” He balanced his text with an image of the Mona Lisa. I was delighted by the creativity they exhibited.   

You’re possibly wondering why asking students to create their own picture books was even an assignment in my classroom. It may seem childish or a waste of time, but I strongly disagree. Picture books create a beautiful harmony in classes. Because of their structure, these books can unify students around an idea, a theme, and a narrative. Even in social studies, every student was compelled by story. And the time they spent choosing the “just right” image and crafting the “just right” sentence proved their investment. Picture books are powerful things. Also, I want you to know how difficult this assignment was for my kids. Today, I posed a question to them: “How many of you thought this would be easier than it really was?” Every hand shot in the air. Writing style, appropriate vocabulary and phrasing, and image selection were all taken into account.  They had to think like writers, a task that is never quite that simple.  

I hope that you will invite your students to read picture books beyond the English/Language Arts classroom. This is definitely an activity that I will use again though the logistics may change based on the needs of future students. I hope that you will allow students time to create their own, using picture books they have loved as mentor texts. All students, even older ones, are captivated by story. Give them a chance to read, write, and create.  You’ll be mesmerized by the things they produce.


Travis Crowder, M.Ed., is a middle school English/Language Arts teacher at East Alexander Middle School in Hiddenite, NC. He has taught for ten years and has experience in both middle and high school levels. He currently teaches 7th grade ELA and social studies, and works with the gifted and talented students in his school. Reading and writing are the soul of a teaching life, and he strives to help his students and co-workers build robust reading and writing lives. He has worked with teachers to develop reading and writing workshop approaches in their classrooms.  Follow his reading and writing life: .

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Aaron Zenz

Picture books and their creators have had a powerful impact on me in many ways over many years.  In the midst of this 30-day-long November celebration of picture books, I thought I would celebrate 30 specific picture books and creators that have influenced my life.  As lovers of the format, our family has around 5,000 children's books in our home collection, so I could easily highlight hundreds.  The giant challenge for me was to limit myself to only 30.  And as an illustrator, I thought I would celebrate these books and their creators in a unique way: through a giant piece of Fan Art...  Here goes!



How many characters did you recognize in this Picture Book Tribute?  And what feeling hit you when you picked out a familiar face?  Giddy?  Did it feel like spotting an old friend?  Did you smile?  Did you make an audible noise or even say something out loud?

That feeling you got?  That's the power of picture books.

Here's a guide to the characters I picked and their creators:


Aaron Zenz
The Hiccupotamus
I love picture books.  I read picture books.   I collect picture books.  I make picture books.  I've illustrated and/or authored 33 picture books, but "The Hiccupotamus" was my first and will always be a significant part of my life.

5 Formative Creators:

Eric Rohmann / 
The Cinder-Eyed Cats
This is the picture book that had the most profound impact on my life and calling to create.  I was in my college library, most likely studying for an exam.  I happened to look up, and I saw these cats staring at me from the other side of the room.  I looked down.  Back up.  Down.  Up.  They were still there.  Still staring.  Intently.  Calling to me.  I was physically moved to stand up, cross the room, and dive into the story.  The power of that moment - for a single image to move me to action - was striking.  And I knew I wanted to do that too.  I knew I wanted to make art that would compel people to move ...or laugh ...or think ...or change ...or inspire them to create too.

John Sandford
The Terrible Hodag
John is the person who had the most profound impact on my calling to create.  He was the first real live illustrator I ever met.  I was in awe of his art.  He befriended and encouraged me.  "You're going to do this someday," he'd say sounding as if he really meant it.  Years later when he started his own publishing company, he took those words and acted on them, hiring me as the first employee.  He got the ball rolling on The Hiccupotamus, and the course of my life was set in motion.

Glen Keane / Adam Raccoon
I discovered Glen Keane's behind-the-scenes rough animation my freshman year of highschool, and he has been my favorite artist ever since.  He's the artist behind Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, and Tangled, but he also created fantastic books about Adam Raccoon - the greatest faith-based picture book series out there by leaps and bounds.

Scott Gustafson /
Alphabet Soup

I started collecting samples of Scott's art from catalogs in college (long before the days of Pinterest).  I actually crossed paths with him years later, and had a memorable star-struck encounter.

David Macaulay
Black and White
This has long been my absolute favorite picture book, and most likely always will be.

2 Local Pals:
The writing and illustrating life is, more often than not, a solitary and sometimes lonely endeavor.  I'm lucky to live near some other top-notch creators.  Laurie and Amy are two local friends, are kindred spirits, and have created many amazing characters.

Laurie Keller / Arnie the Doughnut

Amy Young / Belinda the Ballerina

5 Classics:
A few favorite books from my childhood:

Ezra Jack Keats / The Snowy Day

Jon Stone and Mike Smollin

The Monster at the End of this Book

Arnold Lobel / Frog and Toad

William Steig / Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Maurice Sendak / Where the Wild Things Are

17 Contemporary Creators:
I'm closing out with 17 creators that regularly dazzle and amaze me.  Again, this list could contain hundreds!  But here are a few favorites:

Suzy Lee / Shadow

Shaun Tan / The Arrival

Mac Barnett / Sam and Dave Dig a Hole 

Jon Klassen / I Want My Hat Back

David Wiesner / Tuesday

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith / The Stinky Cheese Man

Adam Rex / Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich

Tony DiTerlizzi / Ted

Dan Santat / Beekle

Mo Willems / Elephant and Piggie

Jarrett J Krosoczka / Baghead 

Renata Liwska / The Quiet Book 

Viviane Schwarz / There Are Cats in this Book

John Hendrix / John Brown

Kelly Murphy / Creepy Monsters Sleepy Monsters

Julia Denos / Swatch

Ben Hatke / Nobody Likes A Goblin

I suspect some of these are your favorite picture books too.  And as for any books or creators that are unfamiliar to you - why not hunt them down?  You may find some powerful, new, life-long friends!


Aaron Zenz lives in Spring Lake, MI with his lovely wife and six creative kids.  He has participated in the creation of 33 children's books, 9 of which he authored.  He loves Author Visits and travels around the country all year long, getting kids excited about reading, writing, and creating.  Just last month, his newest book "Little Iffy Learns to Fly" swooped into the world.  You can find Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.