Monday, October 27, 2014

The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil

Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Published by Little Brown in 2014
ISBN-13: 9780316247801

Grades 4 and up

Book Review

Turning twelve is supposed to be an important and celebratory experience for Amira. And at first, it is: she’s finally old enough to wear a toob, the promise of a hearty wheat harvest surrounds her family, and the gift of a sturdy drawing twig enables her dreams to soar. Among those wishes is the chance to attend Gad Primary School, one of the few schools in Darfur to welcome girls. Amira’s hopes are seemingly shattered when she is displaced by an abrupt and violent Janjaweed attack on her village and thus embarks on a treacherous journey to the refugee camp in Kalma. There, she retreats into silence and swallows her sorrow until a small gift of the titular red pencil reminds her that there is power and possibility in life. With a poignant first-person perspective, Coretta Scott King Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney weaves a compelling verse novel not just about the complexities of war, but also of the human spirit. Paired with award winning illustrator Shane W. Evans’s emotionally raw, clean-lined drawings, the story of Amira’s plight is poetry amplified. For additional insight into the political and historical context surrounding Amira’s experience, Pinkney provides a riveting author’s note about the Darfur conflict. Share this stunning novel with your students for deeper insight into the tragedies and triumphs children experience in wartime or for an engaging study of the beauty and power of language and verse.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

A Novel in Verse: The choice to write the novel in verse rather than prose is intentional and, as such, integral to students’ understanding of The Red Pencil. Consider elements of poetry that may need to be explored to support student understanding of the book. In what ways are Pinkney’s line breaks, stanza breaks, use of white space, and word choice part of the story itself. What do students notice about the sounds and structures Pinkney uses to portray Amira’s thoughts, feelings, and life experiences? Have students select their favorite poems/chapters as a mentor text for their own poetry writing. Consider supporting students to develop original characters as Pinkney did and use poetry to convey historically grounded events. Reading additional novels in verse such as Home of the Brave, Caminar, All the Broken Pieces and Aleutian Sparrow will provide additional inspiration and models for students' compositions. 

The Red Pencil: The Sequel. What happens next? Where do Old Anwar and Amira wind up after they flee the Kalma Refugee Camp? Do they actually get out of the camp? What would Amira be doing now, a decade later? Have your students research more about the Sudan and South Sudan over the past ten years, and then write a sequel to The Red Pencil that takes place at any point from 2005-2014.

The Many Meanings of the Moon. Throughout the book, the moon plays an important role in the story, revealing to Amira the passing of time, and revealing to the reader various beliefs about the moon held by the Fur people of Darfur. Pinkney states in her Author’s Note that she learned of these beliefs in her many interviews with Darfurian refugees while conducting research for this book. What are other beliefs about the moon held by people, communities, and cultures around the world and throughout time? Have your students explore some of the books listed below and write poems about these varying understandings and beliefs about the power and meaning of the moon. Consider having your students create Moon Journals to track the moon over the course of a month and to use as their drawings/ jottings as inspiration for further writing. Use Pinkney’s poetry in the novel as a mentor text for student writing.

The Flicker Box. In the novel, Amira is surprised by the “Flicker Box” attached to a large pole in the refugee camp. The reader understands that this is a television, and the “pink people” within speaking English are most likely American or European broadcasters. Can your students imagine a world without a television or other screens? Have students interview senior citizens in your community about their first moments with technology. When was the first time they saw a television? Watched a presidential speech instead of listening to it on the radio? Saw a photograph of the Earth from space? Have students co-author narratives of this experience with the seniors, and perhaps publish the collection to add to your town or city’s library.

Girls and Literacy. The Red Pencil  is a powerful text to support a larger study on girls and literacy. Consider timing your study of the book around the time of the United Nations International Day of the Girl celebrated every year on October 11th. Support students to consider issues of girls and literacy within and beyond the text: Why do you think Dando and Old Anwar both feel that Amira should be allowed to learn to read, but not Amira’s mother? Why would it be more difficult for Amira’s mother to be open to change, even before the family’s life changes with the loss of Dando and their farm? Are women more typically advocates for girls’ literacy around the world? Can such a generalization be made? Have students research more about girls and literacy internationally. Visit LitWorld’s 10,000 Global Girls page and consider having students take action by writing about and standing up for girls using LitWorld’s suggestions or by creating your own.

Learning an Alphabet. Students reading The Red Pencil most likely have many years of reading already behind them, and many years of writing their name. They may not be able to remember when they first started to form letters. What is the feeling of seeing your name written for the first time, as Amira does on p. 228. Invite speakers of other languages who use a different alphabet, such as Arabic or Chinese, come to class and teach students how to write their name in the new alphabet. Have students document what connection they feel to their name in this new form.

Found Art. Throughout the book characters use found objects and turn them into treasures. Draw students’ attention to how Leila turns a bottle into a baby doll. In what ways does this demonstrate ingenuity and creativity? How does the fight with Gamal over the bottle further demonstrate the value of the object? Support students to notice other moments in the text where found objects become something new such as when Amira turns the colored trash bags into flowers. Finding new uses for objects is called “upcycling”. Research with students how people across the world are upcycling to create art towards social change. Consider with students the difference between upcycling as a creative outlet and upcycling as a necessity.

The Power of the Pencil. In The Red Pencil, reading and writing gives Amira a voice. She is able to communicate her ideas and participate in the world in new ways. Pair your students’ reading of The Red Pencil with a viewing of the United Nations speech by Malala Yousafzai following her attack on her school bus ride. Support students to make connections between Amira and Malala’s life circumstances and the ways that reading and writing changes their lives. Consider with students the issues of power and fear that are associated with girls and literacy both in the novel and in various regions of the world. In what ways are Muma’s fears about her daughter’s literacy development surprising to us? How can we come to better understand her position? In what ways is a pencil a powerful weapon for social change?

Global Text Clubs: The Red Pencil, The Breadwinner, and Shabanu. Both The Red Pencil and The Breadwinner trilogy by Deborah Ellis, and Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples feature girls coming of age. Support students in text clubs to closely read one novel to consider the ways girls are positioned as both powerful and powerless and to gather deeper understanding about another part of the world.  Consider having students share their interpretations of the books with one another through digital storytelling by weaving images they find online, text, and sound to help convey the messages of each story. Explore with students the complexity of how these authors write about other people’s experiences. What responsibility did both Andrea Davis Pinkney, Deborah Ellis and Suzanne Fisher Staples have to research the people who inspired their work? In what ways do they serve a critical role towards furthering girls’ human rights by writing about international conflicts and atrocities?

Gathering Details to Learn More about Darfur and the Sudan. Support students to gather details about Darfur and the Sudan throughout their reading of The Red Pencil. Chart words that may be unfamiliar to students such as toob, genocide, militia, renegades, and Janjaweed supporting students to consider their meanings within and beyond the text. Use the map in the front of the book, as well as online resources, to better understand the geography of Darfur and its impact on the people who live there. For example, consider the origins of the Janjaweed militia in response to scarce water and land resources. Research with students Darfur today and groups such as Human Rights Watch and The International Crisis Group to better understand international efforts to end conflict in this region of the world.

The Power of Artistic Expression. Throughout the novel, Amira uses art as a vehicle to express her dreams, hopes, and sorrows. Invite students to consider the power artistic expression has in their own lives. How do they use various art forms, such as visual arts, music, drama, and dance as an outlet for strong emotions or as a medium for self expression? What is their “Turning-Twelve Twig” or  “Red Pencil”? Consider developing a multi-media performance that offers students a chance to showcase their artistic preferences.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Official Website

The Horn Book: Profile of Andrea Davis Pinkney

Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times

South Sudan, “Times Topic,” The New York Times

NPR, Stories about South Sudan

ACT for Sudan

United Nations Mission in Sudan

Lit World

Women and Literacy, the UN

Red Pencil International


Applegate, K. (2007). Home of the brave. New York: Feiwel and Friends.

Burg, A. E. (2009). All the broken pieces: A novel in verse. New York: Scholastic.

Brown, S. (2014). Caminar. Somerville, MA; Candlewick Press.

Ellis, D. (2000). The breadwinner. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

Hesse, K. (2003). Aleutian sparrow. New York: Margaret K. McElderry.

Nagai, M. (2014). Dust of Eden. New York. Albert Whitman.

Park, L.S. (2010). A long walk to water: A novel: Based on a true story. New York: Clarion Books. 

Staples, S.F. (1989). Shabanu: Daughter of the wind. New York: Random House. 

Whitman, S. (2013). The milk of birds. New York: Atheneum.

Winter, J. (2014). Malala, a brave girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a brave boy from Pakistan. New York: Beach Lane Books.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mr. Cornell's DREAM BOXES

Mr. Cornell’s DREAM BOXES
Written and Illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Published by Beach Lane Books

ISBN: 978-1-4424-9900-3

Grades 2-5

Book Review
“If you had lived on Utopia Parkway not so long ago, you might have walked past this house.” In that house, if you looked closely, as author-illustrator Jeannette Winter asks the reader to do, you would discover Joseph Cornell and his little “Wonderlands,” small, intricate worlds that he created and confined to shadow boxes made of wood and glass. But readers learn even more about Cornell than his famous boxes. They learn of his walks throughout New York City searching for treasures to fill his boxes, of the volumes of journals that he kept while lost in dreams and remembrances, how he cared for his brother, and how he loved cupcakes and sweets. Winter deftly introduces readers to the work of Joseph Cornell in a picture book that expertly uses only exactly as many words as are needed to spark interest in this quiet and interesting artist. Readers are brought into Cornell’s neighborhood and his imagination through Winter’s careful use of white space and color. The author’s note provides additional information about Cornell’s life and his personal connection with children, including his final exhibit, curated especially for them. Winter’s “tribute” to Cornell is more than that; it is an open invitation to children and adults everywhere to dream and create art. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Utopia? The book begins on Utopia Parkway, the street where Joseph Cornell lived for most of his life. Have students explore the word utopia. What does it mean? What are its origins? Why might such a name influence a person who lives his life “in” it? Why might Jeanette Winter have thought it important enough to start the book this way?

Illustrator Study. Have students explore Winter’s illustrations. What do they notice about the use of color and white space? Next, have students explore other books that she has written and illustrated. What are the ways in which this book stands out as an outlier? In other books, particularly The Librarian of Basra, September Roses, and The Watcher, how does she use background color to help shape her narrative? How has she used line to "box in" and "open up" her illustrations? Why might she have chosen not to use those design features in this book? 

Found Objects and Cornell Boxes. How can your students find beauty in the ordinary? Go for walks looking for treasures, as Joseph Cornell did. Fall is a particularly delightful time of year to hunt for natural treasures, whether you live in the city, suburbia, or out in the country. What can your students find in the area around your school building? What can students find in the recycling bins within the school (wash items out perhaps, before using them)? What objects can students find in “string drawers” and other places in their houses or apartments? Next, have students organize their found objects. In the book, these objects are labeled by type (birds, shells, pipes, balls). Do your students want to categorize them in a different way? By color? Function? Shape? Material? Next, have the students list adjectives to describe the objects. Have them describe what is beautiful about each simple object, on its own, and connected to its original function. Next, have students create their own unique Cornell boxes using their found objects. Be sure to have students name their boxes, and draw upon their adjectives and descriptive writing to create a “museum card” to go along with it. Be sure to exhibit these in the hallways or at some central place in your school, like the library. It would be a lovely tribute to Cornell to display the boxes lower to the ground, as he did in his last exhibit in 1972, so that young children can see in. If you have a preschool class in your school, share the exhibit at their height.

Memories and Cornell Boxes. Winter says that Cornell “saw mostly dreams and memories, and he filled his boxes with them. Mr. Cornell remembered watching the ball in penny arcades. He remembered Coney Island…” She also writes of things that scared Cornell, such as “the endless sky.” What memories are important to your students? Do an “I remember” activity with students in their writing journals, where they list times special moments in their lives, being mindful that not all special moments are always happy moments. Have students select one moment to write about in a personal narrative, and then use that personal narrative to create a Cornell Box. Or, do the reverse, and have students use the objects they find, bring in, or create for their Cornell Box become the building blocks of their personal narrative.

Journal Writing. Journal writing is an important part of the language arts curriculum. If your students find it difficult to regularly write in their writing journals, this book may be the inspiration they need to get over a period of "writer's block," as Cornell’s journal writing (which filled over 30,000 pages!) inspired his thoughts and ideas and fueled his artwork. If you want to initiate journal writing as a classroom routine, this book, and its connection to visual art, can serve as a catalyst. In particular, you can ask students to think about and ponder Cornell's memories. What was important to him? What memories important to them? 

Writers as Architects. We know that buildings are “structures” and they when they are built they are framed in ways that keep them sturdy. This holds true for writing as well. In this picture book, Winter uses Cornell’s house as an invitation into his life. For example, she first tells the reader that s/he might notice a light in the cellar window and a moving shadow. From there, she introduces Cornell and his art. Next, one might see him behind his house, in the backyard. Or, you might see him caring for his brother upstairs, or sitting at the kitchen table. Adopt this structure, that begins with a building, as a structure for writing about a loved one. Have students brainstorm people who are important parts of their lives. Next, have them draw a picture of that person doing things in different parts of his/her house or workplace. Together, as a class, identify the ways in which Winter works with Cornell’s house, and then have students adopt the structure to their own writing needs. Have students share their pictures and personal narratives with one another, and their loved ones.

Artist Biography Study. How do other artists express themselves? How did their art and their lives intertwine? Read this book along with other biographies of artists included in our entries on Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, David Drake, and GeorgiaO’Keefe. How does the illustrator portray the art of the subject? How do the illustrations compare to the originals? Why might there be differences? Students can then compose their own biography of an artist. 

Grades 3-5

Critical Literacy

Who Defines Art?  What is art? How do your students define art? Who else defines it? Does the definition matter? Does one need to be formally trained to be an artist? What does it mean when a formally trained artist starts doing something novel, as Joseph Cornell did, and make little “Wonderlands?” Drawing on the resources about Cornell included in the Further Explorations below, have your students examine how they define art. Have students explore Bonnie Christensen’s picture book biography of Andy Warhol, who Joseph Cornell greatly influenced.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Jeannette Winter’s Page at Simon & Shuster

Joseph Cornell Boxes

Joseph Cornell Exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts  
(This website links to an online interactive exploration of his boxes, including video.)

Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

Cornell Biography and Boxes from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joseph Cornell Boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

“Message in a Box,” PBS News Hour

PBS Video on Joseph Cornell 

Audio Story on Joseph Cornell on “All Things Considered” on NPR

Google Search of Joseph Cornell Box Images


Christensen, B. (2011). Fabulous! A portrait of Andy Warhol. New York: Henry Holt.  

Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers.

Winter, J. (2004). September roses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Winter, J. (2011). The watcher: Jane Goodall's life with the chimps. New York: Schwartz and Wade.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Snicker of Magic

A Snicker of Magic
Written by Natalie Lloyd
Published by Scholastic in 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-55279-7

Grades 3 – 8

Book Review

Twelve-year-old Felicity Pickle has a mama who is “cursed with a wandering heart;” as a result she’s a veteran at being the new girl. But when Mama’s heart leads her back to her childhood home in Midnight Gulch, Felicity and her little sister Frannie Jo hope that this move will be different. Midnight Gulch has a magical history and Felicity fits right in there with her own special talent of seeing words – words appear to her in the air and help her to know what others are thinking and feeling. A she describes it, “I see words everywhere, all around me, all the time.” Felicity weaves the words she plucks from the air into poetry that she is too shy to share with anyone other than her immediate family. In her debut novel for the intermediate and middle grades, Natalie Lloyd explores the themes of love, loss, home, community, and redemption through a cast of eccentric, yet appealing, characters. These include, to name just a few, a wheelchair bound classmate with a secret do-gooder identity, a love-lorn long-bearded school bus driver, and a hairdresser who also serves as the town’s auto mechanic.  Aided by her new friends and newly reunited family members, Felicity seeks to unravel the mysterious curse under which her family seems to be suffering, striving to “patch it, mend it, stitch it back together.”  Equally humorous and heart-tugging, this “splendiferous” novel will inspire readers to listen for wind-chime winds and look for snickers of magic all around.

Teaching Invitations: Ideas for Your Classroom

Home is…  At the end of the novel, Felicity asserts, “Home isn’t just a house or a city or a place; home is what happens when you’re brave enough to love people” (p. 302). After re-reading this quote aloud, ask students to do a quick write, jotting down ideas, thoughts, and responses, considering what home is/means to them. You might choose to have students expand this writing through further drafting, feedback, and revision. Alternatively, students could also offer a visual response, drawing or making a collage or mural of what home is/ means to them.

Teaching Literary Elements. A Snicker of Magic provides a wonderful opportunity to explore three literary elements: theme, setting, and characterization. Through discussion, students can examine these three elements and how they are interrelated in this well-developed novel. Students are like to identify theme statements related to home, community, family, connections, love, loss, redemption and change. After you have teased out these themes statements, write them as headers on chart paper. Divide the class up into small groups, assigning each group a statement to further explore. Ask students to record their thoughts on the chart about how the setting and characters reinforce / reflect the theme. Share thinking across groups inviting feedback and further ideas.

Favorite Words.  Felicity collects favorite words in her journal and crafts them into poems. Provide each of your students with 5-10 index cards and ask students to record their favorite words, writing one on each card. Have students label the cards on the reverse side with their initials and then pool the cards together. Read through the words and have students identify different ways that the words can be sorted or grouped. The words can be used for a spelling/phonics lesson if you group them by phonetic patterns or for a vocabulary lesson if the words are sorted semantically. The possibilities are endless. As an extension, divide up the words, distribute them to small groups and invite the groups to compose a found poem (see teaching suggestion above). You may also want to explore other books that feature protagonists who are word collectors, or linguaphiles, such as the fictional picture books: Max’s Words, The Word Collector, The Boy Who Loved Words, One Word Pearl, Donovan’s Word Jar and the Fancy Nancy series or the nonfiction picture book biographies Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.  

Found Poems. Introduce your students to the writing technique of creating a found poem. Begin with a shared writing activity, selecting a passage from the book, asking students to write interesting words from the passage on index cards, and then work cooperatively to craft a poem.Using a local newspaper, invite students to select an article that they feel captures the spirit of your community; students can work in teams to craft found poems from the chosen articles. Finally, invite your students to select a piece of text with which they will work to individually create a found poem. You might choose to use the technology tool called Word Mover provided by Read Write Think for this activity.

Literature Circles. A Snicker of Magic pairs well with two other books that focus on special talents, Savvy by Ingrid Law and A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff. Divide the class up intro three groups, each group reading one of these three novels, and provide time for students to read and discuss their book. When groups have finished reading the group, create an opportunity for groups to share the content and themes of their book with their classmates. This might lead to further explanation of the concept of ‘talents.’ Students could share their own special talents through an oral, written or dramatic presentation.

Finding a Snicker of Magic. Toward the end of the novel, Felicity speculates, “I bet there’s a snicker of magic on every street, in every building, every broken heart, every word of a story. Maybe it’s hidden away and you need to look harder for it. Or maybe the magic is right there, right in front of you, and all you have to do is believe” (p. 309).  Invite your students to consider the magical in the everyday. You might launch this conversation by considering the differences between the genres of magical realism and fantasy. In which category would they place A Snicker of Magic.  It might be interesting to add the discussion the idea that Felicity might have synesthesia (for more on this see our entry on The Noisy Paint Box). Ask students to think about what is magical to them in their everyday life. After having the opportunity to talk about it with classmates, students can be invited to write or draw their ideas.

Envisioning Characters. This novel is chock-full of intriguing characters, so many that students may have trouble keeping track of them all. As characters debut in the story, create a chart to keep track of the character’s name, unique characteristics, and relationships to other characters in the story. At the conclusion of the book, ask each student to select a character of interest to them. They should revisit the book, doing a close examination of the writing to determine the writing techniques Natalie Lloyd has employed to introduce and help us get to know the character. Students can create character portraits, drawing an image of the character and surrounding his/her with the words Felicity might see around him/her.  

Ice Cream Flavors. As students read/listen to A Snicker of Magic, they may naturally begin inventing their own unique and unusual ice cream flavors. Post a chart in the classroom on which students can record their creations. When the list is lengthy enough, have students create a descriptive advertisement poster for their flavor, including visual images. If time allows, you might want to actually make ice cream in the classroom, using an old-fashioned hand crank or newly automated ice-cream maker (ask parents if anyone has one to loan).

Mural of Your Town. Felicity’s mama finds healing power in the process of creating a mural that depicts the soul and character of Midnight Gulch. Collaborate with the art teacher at your school or an artist in your community to have your students produce a large-scale mural depicting your community. Begin by discussing significant landmarks and characteristics of your town/city. Extending this discussion, invite students to consider the soul and character of your community. What should be included in the mural? How can the community’s uniqueness be represented though this form of artistic expression?

Town Stories. Storytelling plays a strong role in A Snicker of Magic, weaving the texture and fabric of the community. Invite your students to explore stories connected with the history of your community. Identify key figures in your community and invite students to interview them, focusing on documenting the stories that shape your community’s history.

Critical Literacy:

The Power of Words. Invite your students to consider how Felicity’s words transformed her future. Ask students to discuss the power of language, thinking of a time when words influenced the direction that their life took. Consider the aesthetic power of poetry as a tool for advocacy. Invite children to identify an aspect of their life that they would like to change and have them explore this concept through poetry. Poems can be kept private or shared publicly.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Natalie Lloyd’s Website

Scholastic Teacher’s Guide

Finding the Message: Grasping Themes in Literature

Read Write Think: Creating a Found Poem

Read Write Think: Word Mover


Banks, K. (2008). Max’s words. Ill. by B. Kulikov. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Brown, M. (2011). Pablo Neruda: Poet of the people. Ill. by J. Paschkis. Boston: Henry Holt.

Bryant, J. (2014). The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Ill. by M. Sweet. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s.

DeGrosse, M. (1994). Donovan’s word jar. New York: Harper Collins.

Graff, L. (2013). A tangle of knots. New York: Philomel.

Groeneweg, N. (2013). One word Pearl. Ill. by H. Mitchell. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge.

Law, I. (2008). Savvy. New York: Dial.

Schotter, R. (2006). The boy who loved words. Ill. by G. Potter. New York: Schwartz and Wade.

Wimmer, S. (2011). The word collector. River Forest, IL: Legato Publishers Group / Cuento de Luz.