Honey, what did you read at school today? by Larissa Juliano
“The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context
of the ordinary is what’s fascinating to me.”
-Chris Van Allsburg
When I share stories with my children and students, I pay attention to what makes their eyes sparkle…I want to know what makes them feel intrigued and which literature will imprint on their minds as they ride home on the school bus and share about their day around the dinner table. What initially hooks a child as they step into a library, a bookstore, a cozy reading nook?
But let’s talk about what goes into the writing once the story is being shared. In my experience, enthralling (does not have to be a best-seller, but just thoroughly enjoyed in your story time!) children’s literature has many of the following:
- Engaging characters (obviously!)
These are books that make kids smile…witty dialogue, vulnerable and authentic emotions, relatable family dynamics. My kids and students just love stories that make us root for the characters so they can have their happy ending. My beloved fairytales and folktales living in 398.2 really target these traits all the while promoting vulnerable conversation topics to discuss within our own connections to the story. And these feelings and emotions conjured during our story time will then be addressed during car pool hour, bedtime tuck-ins, or next time a trip to Barnes and Noble is made.
- Heartwarming theme
This is not meant to be stories with ‘cheese,’ but rather tales that tug at the heartstrings. There are countless mentor texts that exemplify this…Books which ignite our compassion for others and inspire us to put ourselves in other’s shoes. Bravery, kindness, accepting differences. A previous post that I wrote here talks about Corduroy by Don Freeman (my favorite) and how ultimately readers just want to feel connected, heard, and empathized with. The husband wife team of Philip and Erin Stead are creating timeless tales of friendship amongst animals…often reminiscent of the brilliant Arnold Lobel.
- Relatable Dialogue
I struggle with writing dialogue…quotation mark encapsulated words that are supposed to give a picture book reader perception into these carefully constructed characters without sounding ‘gimmicky’ is hard! Readers can be forgiving if the vocabulary slips through their cognizance…but if a character is supposed to be in their general age range…talk like them! Act like them! Be like them! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about children’s lingo, slang and vernacular simply by volunteering in my son’s Kindergarten classroom…they are smart! And funny! And adorably immature yet developmentally perfect! And love characters who are just as so (Anything by Judith Viorst? Classic. Superb. Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Obviously. Pete the Cat? Hysterical and awesome. Wonder by R.J. Palaccio? Incomparable. Perfection.)
- Clues and secrets in the illustrations
My kids go crazy for books that have little elements of surprise in them…especially when it’s sneakily concealed pictures that the author/illustrator includes in ALL of their stories…Chris Van Allsburg with his dog Fritz…Mo Willems with not only Pigeon playing peek a boo, but many of his other characters as well. Kids love to feel smart! Like they are in on a secret…and these little hidden gems allow them to experience that.
- A twist at the end
Steven Kellogg, in my opinion, is often under-mentioned in the conversation about famous author and illustrators. His ‘sneak peek’ pictures (as I have nicknamed them), along with the “extra gravy” picture at the end of the book give readers extra insight and bonus endings to the story. The darling boa constrictor wrapped in a lovingly knit scarf by the farmer’s wife surprises our sweet readers, and also comforts us that he is being taken care of. Black Lagoon series by Mike Thaler is a fantastic example of hilarious surprise endings as well…Another classic (and newly remembered by me) favorite is Patricia Polacco’s “Emma Kate” when we discover who the narrator REALLY is! I love it. The list could go on and on. Authors are so smart, funny, and magical.
- Stories that are interactive
Characters that chat with us! Whether it’s with speech bubbles, first person narrator, or another clever method to engage readers to interact with the stories verbally, emotionally, AND physically (obsessed with Jan Brett’s gingerbread house surprise stories to mention a fun holiday favorite)…This trait always elicits many giggles from our story time stars.
- True Story Picture Books
Probably my favorite ‘genre’ of stories to share all year long. True stories combined with the beauty of illustrations. Students just LOVE to know that the story ‘really happened’ and extra bonus is the inclusion of real photos and the ‘author’s note’ at the end. I absolutely love bringing up real articles and videos to deepen their experience with the event. Whether it ties into the Middle East, War, Brave Leaders, Inventors, Animal Heroics, Women Warriors, Current events, Biographies, Memoirs, Famous athletes, and more..bring on the real stories! Authors Jeanette Winter, Kadir Nelson and Katherine Patterson, and SO MANY MORE are just capturing these forgotten (or unheard of) stories- bringing them into our hearts and igniting our interest in social studies- the real authentic STUDY of SOCIAL things. I love it!
I am by no means an expert in children’s literature…but I love picture books and I love children and what I find extraordinary is when children embrace words that that are anything BUT ordinary (and include many of the aforementioned traits) to become inspired readers and writers. Isn’t that our ultimate goal as teachers, writers, parents, and authors? Create opportunities for children so they pursue their dreams and feel peaceful and fulfilled? I will ask my children every day what they read. I will strive and put books in their hands that promote kindness, illumination, and…inspiration. And someday maybe they will tell me that they decided to write their own story.
“The magic of the illustrated book where part of the story is told by the words, part of the story is told by the pictures. You turn the page and become more and more deeply involved in the story and the pictures. As you turn the page, you lose your own morays. You lose your own groundings, your environment fades and disappears and you become completely a part of the story and of the pictures that you are studying and examining.”
Larissa Juliano is an elementary and library teacher in upstate New York. She lives in her hometown with her husband and three young children. Besides teaching, her passion in life is writing books in hopes of inspiring children to use their imagination, especially through literature. Larissa has just published her first book, Gracie Lou. Larissa has two more books for release in 2017. You can check out Larissa on her website at www.larissajuliano.com or follow her on Twitter @larissaSjuliano