February 13


A Book’s Job by Barb Rosenstock

Your job is a teacher, mine is a writer. Or you’re a librarian and someone else is an illustrator. But what is a book’s job?

When you’ve been working with children’s books for a while you can lose track. You start to believe that a book’s job is to sell a lot of copies or get made into a movie or always be missing from the shelves or have its title tweeted every ten minutes.

After more than ten years of writing for kids, I’ve just learned a lesson about a book’s job that I’ll never forget…

A group of master’s level student teachers from the Maine College of Art in Portland asked to use my upcoming picture book, The Secret Kingdom, for a series of lessons. The Secret Kingdom (illustrated by Claire Nivola) is the story of Nek Chand, a refugee, forced to leave his home village during the partition of India in 1947. As an adult, Nek secretly rebuilt his home village using recycled materials.  His creation is now known as “The Rock Garden of Chandigarh,” and is one of the largest folk or “outsider” art installations in the world.

Portland is an official federal refugee resettlement city.  These graduate in-service teachers, supervised by Kelly McConnell, worked in teams to create lessons for a suburban school system that has grown more diverse in a short time because of its proximity to Portland. The district currently serves students who speak over 25 languages and have come from 66 countries to the United States.

These student teachers hoped The Secret Kingdom, and Nek Chand’s art, might be a good fit to address these varied student’s learning goals. We met in one Skype session, I answered some background questions, the book’s publisher sent materials, and these future teachers went to work. They created experiential lessons that showed great understanding of their student’s needs. Here’s four examples of their amazing work:

Future teachers Samara Yandell and Hannah Bevens wanted to “translate a deeper and personal understanding of home to our students.” But they didn’t have much background on their 5th grade students, and worried about what the idea of “home” could trigger emotionally, especially for more recent arrivals. So, they defined home as a “safe space” and focused on school as a safe space they all have in common. They called their project Safe Spaces/Safe Sounds. After reading the book (and shocking the students that Nek’s kingdom is a real place!) they set out to share “belonging sounds” across cultures: a French cathedral, Japanese temples, and aboriginal wind chimes. Their students drew and created their own chimes using recycled plastics and paint. The chimes were hung in a school entryway (with a QR code so the process can be accessed!) giving students an auditory connection to this safe space. Making school a home.

Coreysha Stone and Laura Berg’s essential question for their multi-day lesson was “Where do I belong?” In Story Bowl of Belonging, they shared an art/language activity that introduced artists as storytellers, pronoun useage, and what it means to belong in a classroom. Each first-grade student chose one object to put in a shared bowl. The bowl was ‘us,’ the objects “me” and “you.” They read Nek’s story aloud, discussed his community, used ELA standard pronouns, and shared artistic examples of bowls from Iraq and other countries. The lesson culminated in each student creating a paper mache bowl decorated with tissue paper, paint and images from The Secret Kingdom. The finished projects express unique ideas of self and community.

Amanda Albanese and Raven Zeh focused on “What colors/textures, sounds/words make you think of home?” in their Haikus for Home lesson. Their 5th grade class discussed sensory triggers: tastes, smells, sounds, memories, and how we can bring home with us using art (brilliant! seriously.) Students interpreted the theme of home in Haiku form, combining original words with sensory language from the book. They used sound clips, world maps, plants, fabrics, ceramics, mirrors, musical instruments, and Nek Chand’s art as inspiration. Amanda and Raven took into account students with textural or sound aversions. The final project was a video in which each student read their watercolor haiku while their sound clip played.

Nek Chand worked hard to plant gardens in his art kingdom, so Greta Grant and Tori Parsloe’s lesson, Tree of Life was intriguing. They showed their 6th graders samples of trees created by artists around the world. Students read and decided on The Secret Kingdom’s central themes. The 6th graders each constructed a plaster gauze branch and copper foil leaf sculpture (much like the wire frameworks Nek Chand used) to reflect their unique qualities. The leaves were embossed using a variety of tools. Some leaves contained symbols, or quotes, “Live life how YOU want” or “Just because my path is different, doesn’t mean I’m lost.” The individual branches were wired to a larger classroom tree to show how students’ personal traits contribute to the entire school community. (

While watching videos of these young students analyzing Claire’s illustrations, and working with Nek’s true story, I experienced their surprise, delight, and sometimes, their frustration. I noticed the patterns on their t-shirts and the embroidery on their headscarves, the shades of their skin and the colors of their artwork. I watched kids in one suburban school, from all over the world, engage with my words in a deep way. Most importantly, I watched them relate to a boy from India born over 100 years ago—a boy who was forced to go, but who found home again through his art.

My job is to write children’s books. As part of that, I think about sales figures, social media mentions, book lists and upcoming reviews for The Secret Kingdom. But those factors will never matter in quite the same way again. Because a bunch of kids from around this planet taught me that a book’s job is to connect. And if it does, that’s enough. That’s what I’m working for. That’s home.

See more photos and videos of the projects at http://www.curiouscitydpw.com/2018/01/21/secret-kingdom-art-lessons/ ‎

Detailed lesson plan .pdf files at: http://barbrosenstock.com/read/SecretKindomguides.pdf



Barb Rosenstock likes true stories best. She is the author of The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, A Changing India and a Hidden World of Art, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, published today by Candlewick Press. Barb has written a number of award-winning picture book biographies, including the 2015 Caldecott Honor title, The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpré. If you’d like to connect, please visit http://www.barbrosenstock.com.