Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Behind the Books: Perfect Pairs

After writing more than 150 science books for kids, I decided to try something a little different—a book for teachers that brings together science and ELA instruction.

My co-author Nancy Chelsey and I worked on Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 for three long years, writing and testing and then re-writing each lesson. So you better believe that we’re thrilled to finally see it in print. Don’t you just love the cover? We do.

The story behind this book traces all the way back to 2006. That’s when I began to see clear signs that some children connect more strongly with nonfiction books, while others gravitate toward fiction. As a result, I started pairing thematically-similar fiction and nonfiction children’s books and developing innovative content-area activities with the books as a centerpiece. For example, here are a few pairings that could be used for an early-elementary science lesson about weather:

The Rain Came Down by David Shannon, Blue Sky Press, 2000 & When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart, Peachtree, 2008 (Gr K-2)

One Windy Wednesday by Phyllis Root, Candlewick, 1996 & I Face the Wind by Vicki Cobb, HarperCollins, 2003 (Gr 1-3)
Snow by Uri Shulevitz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999 & Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Houghton Mifflin, 1998 (Gr 1-4)

I certainly wasn’t the first person to advocate using fiction and nonfiction books together. Two great articles I read as I was just getting started were:

·         Camp, Deanne. “It Takes Two: Teaching with Twin Texts of Fact and Fiction.” The Reading Teacher, February 2000, pp. 400-408

·         Taberski, Sharon. “Fact & Fiction: Read Aloud.” Scholastic Teachers. Internet page at:

When Nancy Chelsey and I met in 2008, she was a science and literacy specialist working for the Maine Math and Science Alliance. She was concerned with the way she saw teachers using children’s literature to teach science. She was intrigued with my ideas, and we began a series of conversations about the most useful and practical way to combine the magic of children’s books with the wonders of the natural world.

When we realized that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) would require elementary educators to teach science in new ways, we knew the time was right to create a resource that would allow time-strapped teachers to combine key elements of their science and ELA curriculum. The result is Perfect Pairs.

By bringing together Nancy’s tremendous experience as an educator and my knowledge of science and children’s books, we’ve created a resource that makes science easy to teach and fun to learn. We hope you’ll give it a try.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.

Try these book pairs:
For more suggestions and full lesson plans, check out Perfect Pairs:  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Behind the Books: Read-aloudability in Nonfiction Picture Books

In June, the CCBC listserv hosted a discussion about nonfiction children’s books, and for one week, my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate was featured and people could ask me questions about it.

One of the people on the listserv is Melissa Techman (Twitter: @mtechman), a fabulous school librarian in Virginia. She urged me to share the following excerpt from the listserv conversation on my blog, and I always do what Melissa says.

Librarian Megan Schliesman asked:
I think we generally assume that picture book authors—the best picture book  authors—are very tuned in to how the words sound when read aloud, but I don't know if we always think about informational picture books in this way. In this book, you had the two levels of narrative (three if we include the bookworms). Do you think about both of the primary narratives with this in mind?

Here’s my answer:
As I’m revising a manuscript to make the words choice as pleasing and precise as possible, I always read it aloud while I’m standing up. Somehow I pay more attention when my butt isn’t in a chair. I usually have someone in my critique group read the manuscript back to me, too. If that reader stumbles over a word or a phrase, I know I need to rework it.

When writing books with layered text (a term invented by April Pulley Sayre), the challenge is to make the main text stand on its own AND to allow room for readers to interrupt the main text with the secondary text (and in this case the tertiary text, too).

I’ve discovered that students are really passionate about hearing all three layers of text in No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Here’s a conversation I recorded on Facebook after a school visit in Maine:

Third grader: I'm so mad at my teacher. When she read No Monkeys, No Chocolate, she skipped over the bookworm parts. Don't you think they're CRITICAL?
Me: Yes, I do.

Third grader: That's what I think, too.

I love that kid.

Monday, September 8, 2014

International Literacy Day

It's International Literacy Day . . .

Why do I read? I read nonfiction to learn as much as I can about the world around me. I read fiction to travel to places that only the imagination can go.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fan-mail Friday

After receiving the letter below, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Behind the Books: Words to Remember

I’m still in summer mode, so it’s hard for me to believe it’s already September and the school year has begun. Gesh! Why does summer seem so short?

I’ve got some great, meaty posts kicking around in my head for Celebrate Science this year, but to get us warmed up, I thought I’d start off by sharing a great quote from my friend and fellow nonfiction author Mary Kay Carson:

"I feel like fiction tells universal truths and nonfiction tells specific truths. We need both kinds."

Isn’t that great? You can read the full interview with Mary Kay here. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy Labor Day!

Thursday, August 28, 2014


I'll be back to my regular blogging schedule next week, when school begins in my hometown. But I couldn't resist sharing the delicious treat I received today from Shana Frazin, senior staff developer at the Teachers College Readers Writers Project.

Gifts like this one are just one more reason I love my PLN.

Hmm. Which one should I eat first?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference Handout

Today I’m presenting a talk entitled Having Fun with Nonfiction: Using Award-winning Children’s Books in the Classroom at the Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. I’m sharing my handout here (rather than on paper), so that interested people can simply click on the links. (Plus it saves trees.)

Whether or not your state has adopted the Common Core standards, you are probably being asked to integrate more nonfiction into your curriculum. And that means working with students to develop their nonfiction reading skills. Here’s how they break down:

Traditional Skills

  • Identifying main ideas
  • Recognizing supporting details
  • Building vocabulary
  • Identifying connections/relationships between ideas, events, or individuals in a book

 Twenty-first Century Skills
  • Thinking about visual literacy
  • Identifying text features (sidebars, TOC, index)
  • Analyzing text structures
  • Considering the intent of texts, author point of view, and how authors support points
  • Comparing multiple texts and various media

What follows are teaching ideas and book lists for each of the skills described above. Here are some general resources:



Identifying main ideas/Recognizing supporting details
Reading Buddy programs have many proven benefits. When buddies use nonfiction trade books with layered text, the benefits increase. Younger students read the simpler main text (which includes the main idea) and the older student reads the secondary text (which includes supporting details). Then they discuss the art together. When they are done, they can work together to complete supporting activities. For more information:

Recommended Titles
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Beaks by Sneed B. Collard (illus. by Robin Brickman)

The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre (illus Patricia J. Wynne)

A Butterfly is Patient by Diana Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart (illus. Sarah S. Brannen)

Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre (illus. Woody Miller)

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart (illus. Nicole Wong)

A Place for Birds by Melissa Stewart (illus by Higgins Bond)

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

When the Wolves Returned by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (photos Dan and Cassie Hartman)

Building vocabulary
For younger children, fun songs are a great way to reinforce domain-specific vocabulary introduced in children’s books. Here are some sample songs I’ve written to build vocabulary included in lifecycle units on butterflies and frogs:

For upper elementary students, Readers Theater is a wonderful way to reinforce vocabulary (not to mention build fluency and comprehension). Many science-themed children’s books can easily be adapted into Readers Theater scripts that kids will love practicing and performing. For information about the benefits of RT and how to adapt books into scripts that are perfect for your students, please see this article:

Here are RT scripts I’ve written to accompany some of my books:
Recommended Titles
Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart (illus. Constance R. Bergum)
Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea by Steve Jenkins
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman
Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson (illus. Gennady Spirin)
Leaving Home by Sneed Collard (illus Joan Dunning)
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost (illus Leonid Gore)
Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Guiberson (illus Steve Jenkins)
A Rainbow of Animals by Melissa Stewart
Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart (illus. Constance R. Bergum)
When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart (illus. Constance R. Bergum)
Where Are the Night Animals?by Mary Ann Fraser
Where Butterflies Grow by Joanne Ryder (illus Lynne Cherry)
Identifying connections/relationships between ideas, events, or individuals in a book
It can be tricky to find books that are perfectly suited for teaching this skill. Here are some titles that I recommend:
For Younger Students
Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine
Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge
Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman
For Older Students
Energy Island by Allan Drummond
John, Paul, George, & Ben by Lane Smith
Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonard da Vinci by Gene Baretta
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola
Those Rebels John & Tom by Barbara Kerley (illus. Edwin Fotheringham)
Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre (illus. Kate Enderle)
Thinking about visual literacy
This is a critical skill for twenty-first century learners. While any book illustrated with art or photos can be used to discuss the role of the words and pictures, here are a few that I particularly recommend:
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton (illus. Tony Persiani)
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkle
Redwoods by Jason Chin

Identifying text features/Analyzing text structures
This is another important skill twenty-first century learners. Many of my books include a wide variety of text features, so I’ve developed teaching materials to go with them, including a SmartBoard slide and several worksheets and activities that you can download:
I’ve also sorted dozens of award-winning nonfiction books by text structure and developed some related activities. You can access them here:
Considering the intent of texts, author point of view, and how authors support points
Today’s students are also being asked to imagine themselves “in the shoes” of the authors. They must consider that an author’s world view affects how he/she approaches topics. For discussions of author intent, I recommend two activities.
1.    Compare The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder (illus Lynne Cherry) and Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell, focusing on why two authors might have created such different books about the same small animal.
2.    Imagine author Barbara Kerley’s thought process as she developed the voice for What to Do About Alice?. How do students think the publisher’s choice of Edwin Fotheringham and the illustrator reinforced the author’s intent for the book?
For discussions of point of view, ask students to consider how the authors’ world view inspired them to write the following titles:
City Chickens by Christine Heppermann
A Place for Bats by Melissa Stewart (illus Higgins Bond)
Step Out Gently by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder
Write On, Mercy: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren by Gretchen Woelfle (illus. Alexandra Wallner)
List books (in which the main idea is stated on the first page and subsequent spreads are essentially a list of examples that reinforce the main idea) are a simple and powerful way to show students how author can support their points. I recommend the following titles:

Bird Talk by Lita Judge
Born to Be Giants by Lita Judge
A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart (illus. Sarah S. Brannen)
How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins
Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
A Rainbow of Animals by Melissa Stewart
A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. Sylvia Long)
Wings by Sneed Collard
Comparing multiple texts and various media
There are lots of ways to help students develop this skill, and trade children’s books can play a central role. To compare and firsthand and secondhand account, try using The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy) by Barbara Kerley (illus. Edwin Fotheringham) Inside the book, there is a little tiny book with excerpts from the journal of Samuel Clemens’s daughter Suzy. The main text explores how the world viewed Mark Train, the famous writer, while the excerpts share his daughter’s point of view. It’s a powerful way for kids to realize that the world might see their own parents differently than they do.
Students will also enjoy comparing fiction and nonfiction books that look at the same topic. Here are some books I recommend:
Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale
Birds by Kevin Henkes (illus. Laura Dronzek)
Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart (illus. Candace R. Bergum)
Under and Over the Snow by Kate Messner (illus.  Christopher Silas)
Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Htakoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu (photos Peter Greste)
A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer (illus. John Butler)
Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue for War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock
And if you are looking for a resource that combines studying fiction/nonfiction pairs with teaching science, you might want to use Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2, a book I co-authored with former teacher Nancy Chesley. It will be available from Stenhouse Publishers in August.
Students will also be interested in comparing two nonfiction books covering the same topic but written in different ways by different authors. Here are some great examples:
The Wolves Are Back by Jean Craighead George (illus. Wendell Minor)
Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee
The Truth About Poop by Susan E. Goodman (illus. Elwood H. Smith)
The Tale of Pale Male by Jeanette Winter
City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy
Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City by Janet Schulamn (illus. Meilo So)
Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter
Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire Nivola
Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler
Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli (illus Kadir Nelson)
Children’s trade books can also be included in lessons that look at a particular topic using a variety of media. Here are some ideas for a unit on honey bees for upper-elementary students.
  1. Read aloud the beginning and end of The Hive Detectives: A Chronicle of Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns (photos Ellen Harasimowicz) for a great firsthand account of working with a bee hive.
  2. Ask students to read The Buzz on Bees: Why Are They Disappearing? by Shelley Rotner and Anne Woodhull (age-appropriate overview of the current plight of honey bees), The Life and Times of the Hony Bee by Charles Micucci (general information about bees), and unBEElievables by Douglas Florian (fun bee poetry).
  3. Encourage students to listen to NPR’s Science Friday report “The Buzz on Bees: Coping with Vanishing Colonies.”
  4. Invite students to view a webcam showing live bees inside a hive:
A great general resource for planning lessons that take advantage of various kinds of media is Teaching with Text Sets by Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes. Follow their blog here:

Some of the books I've listed above will eventually go out of print. Plus new books are being published all the time. How can you find great nonfiction books in the future? Keep an eye on these lists:  
AAAS/Subaru Prizes for Excellence in Science Books
ALA Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
CA Reading Association Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award
Cook Prize for STEM Picture Book
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List
Cybils Nonfiction for Middle Grade & Young Adult
Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books
NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults
And that's it!