Ann Cameron and teachers share ideas for teaching children’s books in the classroom

Stili Klikizos, second grade teacher at Fratney School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, writes to Ann:
"I read the following books to my class as read-alouds: The Stories Julian Tells, More Stories Julian Tells, Gloria Rising, Gloria's Way, and Julian's Glorious Summer.  I would read a chapter or two every day following a very busy recess-lunch hour (I never had any problems beginning the afternoon since the kids knew they were in for a treat once we returned to the classroom)."
"You inspired every one of my students with your engaging stories and wonderful writing...  Every chapter I read to the students was anticipated and savored, and in turn, appreciated."
"It is truly difficult to find exceptional writing (for primary level students) these days. We would talk about good writing in our Writers' Workshop classes, and kids knew what to look for. More than anything, your writing spoke to their hearts first, and then their heads. You made connections and sparked ideas. This is what they will remember." 

Below, Ann shares ideas for teaching children's books in the classroom. The first sections deal with a general approach. After that are sections with suggestions for specific books. Click on a book cover below to go directly to it.

Goto spunky     Goto Colibri     goto Gloria Rising     Goto Gloria's Way     Goto The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods     Goto 'More Stories Huey Tells'     Goto The Most Beautiful Place in the World

Goto Julian, Dream Doctor
     Goto Julian, Secret Agent     Goto Julian's Glorious Summer     Goto 'The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano'     Goto 'The Stories Huey Tells'     Goto 'More Stories Julian Tells'     Goto 'The Stories Julian Tells'

Psychology in Children’s Books

The easiest way to use my books--or other children’s books--is to have students to think about the psychology of the characters: why they do the things they do? what they might do differently?  How does something that happens to the characters resemble something that has happened to you?

Often teachers use my stories as a springboard for children's discussion of their own lives. If  children’s books spur students to think more, to dream more, to hope for more, to understand more, and laugh more—then they’ll want to read more, too.

Writing Assignments for Young Children

The shorter the better!!!

It's a mistake to load young children with long writing assignments about books they read.   It can only lead to their hating the apparent source of the tedium--books.

The Language of Fiction and Poetry

Writing well is an art.  Writing sentences that captivate with their richness requires an open and searching imagination.  It requires a respect for subjectivity, one's own and other people's.

How to create that respect?  Teachers  might have students read with their personal "feeling meters," noting their emotions  and what sentences in a story affect them the most.  They might copy down their favorite sentence--or one they don't understand or don't like.

Children can learn to give much more attention to what they read if they are guided to think about an author's language--to play and experiment with it, too. For instance, in my story "A Pudding Like a Night on the Sea," instead of having children give a pedestrian answer to a pedestrian question like "What happened when the boys ate the pudding?", help their minds to fly.  Have students talk about how a pudding could feel "like a night on the sea."  (To me there's a kind of moist soft mildness to the atmosphere of a night at sea, a richness in the air which led me to that simile.)  But suppose some children say there's no way a pudding could be like a night on the sea or that a father could have eyes like black lightning (how could lightning be black?)  Then is a good time to discuss subjectivity, the uniqueness of each person's perception.  Help students find the uniqueness of their own subjectivity and perception.  Have them develop a story  by making up their own "wild"  similes using their own subjectivity.  They may discover a birthday cake like a forest of chocolate trees; a father with eyes like snake venom; a mother with a butterscotch smile; a little brother with fingers  like ten-pound hammers, they are so good at breaking so many things.

Experience is always rich, but when language is poor, experience and feeling itself gradually become impoverished.  A search for rich words to describe what we feel and observe is like  water to a parched, drought-ridden land:  it brings our experience and our minds new life.  And in new life, there's hope.  Appreciating our own subjectivity and that of other people, we nurture more of all we may become.  Then maybe in later years, there'll be less cause for numbness, bitterness, despair; less pain of feeling like nothing and nobody; and we will know that we can buy is not be the measure of who we are.

Turning children’s books into plays

One of the best things to do with my children’s books in the classroom is to take individual chapters and turn them into plays. Children can change and elaborate the dialogue,  invent new incidents or endings.  They can make scenery or masks, have one student be a narrator and others act as characters. 

Creating mini-dramas develops children's acting talent and their self-confidence, as well as insuring that they really understand a story.  It allows active learning-- a chance to unite body and mind, to enrich reading with action, movement, gesture, and the expression of emotion.

Vision and Re-Vision

We celebrate school graduations frequently, now even "graduations" from kindergarten. Concentrating on endings, we may neglect beginnings: orienting children to WHY they are in school in the first place, what qualities school requires, and what benefits it brings, both to children themselves and to our society. 

Sixty some years ago, I started kindergarten.  I quickly discovered I much preferred being at home.  I had no idea really why my world had suddenly included school, which didn't live up to my expectations of fun and excitement.  Some orientation from parents or teacher might have helped, but it wasn't forthcoming.   Kindergarten!  Unfortunately for me it amounted to being dictated to by a teacher who didn't like children.  I recall being told daily that we were to get in lines, bend sideways and sing "I'm a little teapot, short and stout, take my handle and pour me out!" I got very angry but was afraid to show it.  I didn't want to look like a teapot. I had no desire to be a teapot.  If I had been told that it's important to bend and stretch to be flexible and strong, I'd have been interested.  Probably minus the song.

Many older students, who react to the instruction to revise their writing the same way I reacted to the teapot song, might be helped by some orientation.

What is revision?  It' shouldn't be correcting mistakes in work that has already gone dead.  It shouldn't be like an undertaker's makeup job.  Revision is something we do in the whole of life, adjusting ourselves as we learn new things, being equally alive after many adjustments, at age fifty as we were at ten.

Revision at its best is Re-Vision.

When we write something that matters to us, our initial vision is usually incomplete.  After we bring it to birth on paper or a computer screen, we can see that it has some growing to do.  We move back into the fullness and aliveness of our own minds to enrich our vision.  When we succeed in bringing our writing new life, when we work on a second or third or fifth draft, still caring about just as much as we did in the beginning, then revision isn't boring.

This means of course that from the beginning, the child writer should be writing about something important to him or her.  Only then is it worthwhile.

What else is there to revising?

We write, just as we talk, because we want others to understand us.  Writing is persuasion.   The easier it is for others to read and understand our communication, the more power we have to persuade them to see things our way, to feel one with us, to care about what we care about--and maybe in some cases, do what we want.  (Allen Say, the children's illustrator and author, told me that when his daughter as a child wanted some new privilege, she had to write an essay for him justifying her request--a great incentive for writing persuasively and well.)

In everything in life, details matter--from noticing what traffic is coming when we cross the street, to noting that a recipe calls for a quarter teaspoon of salt, not a quarter cup, on up to the highest levels of art and science.  As adults, we are willing to trust our lives to those who take the trouble to get details right.  We're wary of those who don't.  Being careful about the details of English--spelling, grammar, sentence structure--adds to the brain's capacity for attention to detail.  Attention to detail--learning not to skip over small things--adds to one's life competence and power.

With practice, we attend to details in what we read and write easily and rapidly.  However, if our very efficient brains have been taught from first grade on that sloppiness is OK, it's very hard to change them, to open them to more thought and effort.  Revision is a way to build a noticing brain, a brain that will serve its owner well for life.  

Just as life is a series of experiments, so is our writing.  We're not stupid or failures if it doesn't go right the first time, or the third or the twentieth or the hundredth.  Attention to detail on a page is much harder for some children than others: for dyslexic children over-emphasis on it could be a mistake, a terrible stumbling block to developing as readers and thinkers.  But for most students,  it's a challenge well worth meeting.

School without challenge is boring and useless. Life without effort and some sacrifice for what we care about is flavourless, meaningless.  If somehow sometime someday we can get oriented, we'll do OK.

Graduation comes last and pretty much takes care of itself.  

Following are book-by-book discussions of my children’s books--starting with the most recent:


Spunky Tells All

book cover for spunky tells allSpunky Tells All is a short, very funny novel (106 pages).  It appeals to all kids who have pets or wish they did.  However, it can be especially beneficial in the classroom for slow readers who look at a book and despair of ever getting through it, and  for impatient readers who read fast but not well.  It offers many ways for teachers to share the  pleasure to be found in reading closely and following a story sentence by sentence.

Spunky’s native language is, of course, Dog.  He has a little trouble with English—or Human, as he calls our language.  His misunderstandings show up in orthographic and grammatical irregularities that students will love to notice, pounce on, and discuss.

Cati Geddry-Pierce, a middle school reading specialist in Portland, Oregon with a genius for connecting with students, uses the novel in her classroom.  She kindly agreed to tell me how she engaged her students with the book and let me share her approach with you.

Spunky lying on a blanket“I used Spunky Tells All with sixth graders who have struggled with reading,  They loved the book. Reading on their own, they tend to skip over things and lose the details and the thread of a story.  We read Spunky Tells All every other day over several weeks—with the text projected on a screen so they could read along as I read aloud to them.

The story proved a good choice for many reasons—not the least because the main characters are animals, not children.   At the beginning, it was a challenge for some of them to understand that the narrator was a dog. Once they got that, they were interested in making connections, comparing Spunky to their own pets.. They were also able to understand the idea of perspective-taking another point of view and trying to see the world through their pets’ eyes. Our pets are watching us all the time, I said. What do they see?  What do they make of our, to them, strange behavior?

Many sixth graders feel safer commenting on animal characters than on human characters their own age, whose moods and angst can sometimes touch too close to home.   Because Spunky Tells All has sadness in it as well as humor, it aroused their empathy—an extremely important quality to cultivate in children of this age. My students feel a lot like Spunky, who complains that his humans don’t understand him.  They often feel that the adults in their lives don’t understand them—another important connection.

Spunky sitting

Poor readers read words without intonation or voice, because they decode with too much difficulty to focus on meaning, or they read too fast to fully imagine the experience that they’re reading about.  Experienced readers of stories—particularly those who have been read aloud to as children-- hear narrators’ and characters’ voices as they read.  Readers’ understanding of the text gives these voices emotional tones.  One of my goals was to get my struggling readers to start hearing characters’ voices in their heads.  We talked about how the story let us know the way the characters’ voices sound as their moods change. 

Drawing attention to details of language helped them discover that word play is fun and that authors have control over the words they choose. Some of my students are learning English as a second language or their parents are immigrants to the U.S.  Spunky’s problems with words gave us an opportunity to talk about how little kids automatically learn the rules of grammar in their first language—but how they may struggle to learn the different rules of a second language.  As Spunky explains, his native language is Dog.  He understands almost all the words in Human, he says—but like most of us who have learned a second language, he sometimes misunderstands or invents new words.  

Spunky and Fiona

Spunky says that one time he felt “humidiated”—the way a dog would feel if somebody poured a whole pan of water on his head for a joke.  The students noticed this word right away, focusing on an author or editing error.  They worked hard to figure it out, talking  about words like “humid,” “humidifier” and “humiliated.” They decided that maybe “humidiated” wasn’t an author’s misspelling after all, but was actually intentional.

One of Spunky’s invented words is “smellody” – for the wonderful mixture of smells that to him are the meaning of life.  After Michelle, the mother of the family, listens to a song on the radio, Spunky thinks she’s told him, “I love this Smellody”—but what she actually has said isn’t stated in the text.  The students had to figure it out.    

The real Fiona
Bella, the real-life Fiona.

When Spunky speaks of dogs as a species, dogs is always capitalized—but cats isn’t.  When Fiona is speaking, “cats” is capitalized, but dogs isn’t.  I pointed out this odd capitalization on the screen.  We talked about why the author chose to capitalize these words, and why they were capitalized differently by the two animals.  This gave me a chance to point out to the kids how much richer a story is when you read it carefully--how very small details in a story can add to its meaning and richness, in this case indicating the attitude and values of the characters.

The real Spunky
Abbey, the real-life Spunky.

The students know that I always read the dedications because authors are real people and I might learn something about them by reading the dedication.  In the case of Spunky Tells All  the surprise for them was that the book is dedicated to my husband and me.   Ann Cameron is a good friend and she based her story on events in the lives of our dog Abbey and cat Bella.  Discussing the dedication, in turn, gave me a chance to talk about how writers do research—often by listening to people and learning from their friends.

After we finished the book, the students wrote letters to Ann.    One student wrote, “Through [the] whole book I was able to make a lot of connections.  I have never read a book with so many connections.”

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In social studies classes Colibrí is a winner:  it’s authentic to geography, history, and daily life in Guatemala and to Mayan customs (both current and historical). Teachers of middle grade students might use the novel to encourage reflection on the pressures young U.S. teens feel to conform and how they at times resist in order to find their truer selves.

ColibriColibrí is based on my twenty years of experience living among the Mayan people. Every detail of customs and beliefs was checked with Mayan sources. The wartime massacre described briefly in the book is one that actually took place at a plantation called "La Hortensia," near Nebaj, Guatemala. Major events of the book–a child kidnapping and the theft of a statue from a church–are unfortunately frequent happenings here and are a common topic of articles in Guatemalan newspapers. All the places in the book are real, though some names and locations are changed. The place described as "Two Rivers" is in a Guatemalan national park, "Semuc Champey." "San Sebastián" resembles the town where I lived, Panajachel.

Uncle kidnaps Tzunún because he believes he can sell her to unscrupulous characters who arrange foreign adoptions of kidnapped children.  Guatemala holds the dubious honor of having the highest per-capita number of foreign adoptions in the world. Adoptive parents pay up to $30,000 to arrange adoptions. That attracts criminals, so sometimes children are kidnapped and sold into adoption; as many as 15 child kidnappings are reported each month. The government fights this evil and on occasion the newspapers have stories of clandestine baby nurseries being discovered or of DNA testing resulting a baby being returned to the mother. The U.S. Embassy requires DNA testing as well as face-to-face interviews with the natural mother before issuing a visa to the baby. Spain, Canada and the Netherlands will not approve adoptions from Guatemala. The vast majority of the adoptions are legal. Most U.S. adoptive parents have met the biological parents of the children they adopt and are rightly sure about the legitimacy of the adoption. In the event children adopted from Guatemala are in your school, I think this subject should be handled with great care.

What I most wanted  to capture in the book, though, is the reality that newspapers and maps can't express: the courage and generosity of Guatemalan people, and the way faith, mystery, magic and dream is a vital part of their lives. The novel is an adventure story, but most of all it's a study in identity formation and the development of autonomy in a girl--a young girl becoming a teenager and learning to take upon herself the responsibility for who she is and becomes. This is a universal experience of both sexes, and I think will be very meaningful to middle school readers.

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Gloria Rising

Possible questions for students:

Gloria risingHave you ever had a time when you told the truth and someone didn't believe you? How did you feel and what did you do about it?

Have you ever felt caught in a fear-ball?

Why do you think Billy is doing mean things? Could his parents divorcing have anything to do with that?

Have you ever wanted to keep something special that's very important to you, even if nobody else could understand why, the way Gloria keeps her onion? What was your special thing, and why was it important? Did you keep it? Do you still have it? Or what happened to it? Is it still important to you?

The astronaut Grace Street talks about daring to do the things you care about. Is there something you really want to do that seems that it might be too big of a challenge? What is it? Do you think there are any steps you could take to get ready to do it?

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Gloria's Way

Questions and activities:

Glorias wayMake a poem from newspapers the way Gloria does.

Julian and Huey's dad advises her "not to let a parrot's mind mess up your mind." Do you know any people that mess up other people's minds--just like that parrot? How can we deal with people who want to "mess up our minds"? Why does Latisha try to get her new friends to eat her apple pie? Does Latisha have trouble letting her new friends know that she is angry? What could she have said to communicate with them better? What does Mr. Bates think of the idea of just letting somebody getting away with acting a little bit mean? Do you think he is right? Why does Gloria's mother advise her not to ask Julian if he likes her or Latisha best? Do you think her mother is right? Julian believes that everyone needs to have some secrets. Do you think that's true? Do you ever feel your parents don't have enough time for you? Do you think there's anything you could do about it? Gloria's dad thinks he might solve his work problem better if he didn't keep pushing at it so hard. Do you ever solve a problem better after relaxing a little?

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The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods

Amanda K woodsWhat do children think about Margaret's philosophy about "circulating"? What do they think of Amanda's idea that great people, like the Lone Ranger, get people to do what they want without having to persuade them? Amanda is very concerned about not being phony--but then she takes a photo of her sister's to send to her French pen pal as if it's her own. Why is it hard for people to show their real selves to others? Has it ever been difficult for you? Amanda tries to get her father to talk to her. Why do you think parents sometimes are closed off from their children, like Amanda's father? Margaret changes a lot in the book. What changes do you see in her, and what do you think are the causes? Amanda changes a lot, too. How would you describe the changes in her?

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More Stories Huey Tells

more stories from hueyHave you ever been sad, like Huey is over his sunflowers, when someone or something in your life died? How did you get over your sadness? Have you ever figured out a clever way to keep a brother or sister from taking advantage of you--the way Julian tried to take advantage of Huey by hogging his new basketball? Why is it so hard for Huey's dad to give up cigarettes? Do you know any adult who suffers from an addiction? What does that person say about his addiction? Do you think Mr. Bates is right when he says that Huey and Julian are stealing when they flushed his cigarettes down the toilet? Did you ever feel like a failure when an adult Book coverdidn't keep a promise to you? Do you think there's any way to get over that feeling? What would you take with you if you made a very long journey into space? Why would you choose those particular things to take along? What would you most like to see in outer space? Describe going to really see it. Huey says he's 15 billion years old, and he would say that you are, too. Why? How does it feel to be 15 billion years old? Can you imagine some of the things the atoms in your body have known during the past 15 billion years? In the story "The Treasure," Huey ends up alone down in the bottom of the mine because he's scared to admit he's scared. Have you ever gotten into a situation like that? How did you get out of it? What happened that made it possible for Mr. Bates to give up cigarettes? What do you feel your own biggest "treasures" are, and why?

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The Most Beautiful Place in the World

Book coverSince this novel deals with a child's mother abandoning her son, it can be hard for children emotionally. It's a good idea to talk about how young Juan's mother might be. People often marry early in Guatemala. Young readers should know that perhaps Juan's mother was only 14—or even younger-- when he was born. Do they think fourteen-year-olds are ready to be responsible parents? Do they think her youth gives Juan's mother some excuse for her actions? How would they feel if they were separated from their parents? They might wish to take the parts of characters in the book and write additional scenes for the characters. What would Juan say to his mother if he confronted her about his leaving him? What would she say? What would Juan's grandmother tell his mother? Children might like making up a dialogue where the things Juan says to his mother are so convincing that she leaves the stepfather and comes back home. How does poverty affect the characters in the book? What role does poverty play in their decisions? What do the students think causes poverty in a society or in a family? The recipe for Arroz con Leche is found by a click here

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Julian, Dream Doctor

Book coverDo children think their own parents might ever be afraid of something the way Julian's and Huey's father fears snakes? Children might ask their parents and find out. Do they themselves have any fears that they've overcome or would like to overcome? They might write their own stories about a birthday present that turns out to be the opposite of what someone wants. 

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Julian, Secret Agent

Book coverWould the students like to trap a criminal, as Julian, Huey and Gloria try to do? Do they have any ideas about ways to do detective work, or how they could trap a criminal? The Food Wizard has all kinds of strange names for the food he cooks. Can the children think of new names for other things they eat? 

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Julian's Glorious Summer

Book coverHow do the responsibilities Julian's dad gives him show that his dad loves Julian? Did his dad teach Julian any important lessons in this book? Did your students have a hard time or any scary moments learning to ride a bicycle? What made it hard or scary? One important part of learning to write stories is learning to stretch or compress time. In a story, two years can pass in two seconds, or something that happened in ten seconds can take many minutes to tell about. Have the children "stretch time" in telling what happened in their scariest moment of learning to ride a bike. If nothing scary happened, they can make something up. 

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The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Book coverWhy was learning to read so important for Olaudah? What surprised you most about the things that happened to him? About the things you learned about slavery from reading the book? If you have been a slave, what about it would have hurt you the most? Why did people want to own slaves? How did the slave owners justify slavery, and how does Olaudah's life story prove that their justifications were false? At some points in the story, people who have been kind to Olaudah betray him? Why? Do you think people can be changed by greed? Why is it important that human beings have rights that their countries enforce? Do you think the world will ever be a place where everyone's rights will be respected? Is there anything we can do to help ensure that people are treated fairly? For instance, a lot of children in foreign countries suffer the virtual slavery of child labor, making goods that are sent to the USA for sale. Are there ways we can help them? How did Olaudah find the strength to endure so many hardships? Where do you find the strength to endure hardships? 

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The Stories Huey Tells

book coverDo you have bad dreams? What are they about? Huey says Julian "nothings" his bad dream. What does he mean by that? Can you think of times when somebody's "nothinged" worries you have? Have you ever done it to someone else? Why do you think people "nothing" other people? Did you ever get angry at your family and feel like leaving home? What happened? Do you think the family rule about eating everything in restaurants is a good rule? Is there anything good about it? Is there anything bad about having that kind of a rule? Did you ever make something special, the way Huey makes Banana Spaghetti, and have it not work out? Do you think it's worth trying new things anyway? Have you done anything special for your family that did work out? Are there things you keep to yourself--the way Huey doesn't tell his family the secret of where the animal tracks come from? Would you rather tell things or keep them to yourself? Do you like to observe wild animals, the way Huey, Julian and Gloria want to do? Are there animals you can see near where you live? If there aren't, can you watch animals at the zoo? Find an animal to observe and write about all the things it does.

Christina Grace, reading teacher at Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has generously shared her and her students' new and improved recipe for Banana Spaghetti with me. Click here to see the recipe-- and the fun her second graders had preparing it.

The recipe for Banana Spaghetti is reached by a click here.

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More Stories Julian Tells

more stories julian tellsWas there ever a time when you were scared to tell your parents something--the way Julian and Huey are scared to tell their parents they're bored? Did you tell your parents in the end? How did they react? Do you ever feel like Julian, that you wanted "to beat someone at something"? Do you make up bets or challenges Book coverwhen you feel like that? Julian's dad tells Julian that he's still learning to be a good father. How should a good father act? What does Julian's father do that makes him a good father? Are there things he does that make him not such a good father? How do you want to act toward your children if you become a father or mother? Pretend you found Julian's bottle in a strange country or right near where you live, and write to him. 

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The Stories Julian Tells

This is a book in part, about a family where the father is a very strong presence.  Do students think that Julian's dad is a good father?    What makes a good father?  Do they think that sometimes even a good father can make mistakes in how he treats his children?  Do they see any mistakes in the way Julian and Huey's dad treats them?  Do students think he is a loving father? 

Book coverAdditional activities and questions:

Do you think the way Julian's father describes the pudding makes it even more tempting to the boys? Write a tempting, mysterious description of some food you like. Make up a story about an invisible animal that helps people, the way catalog cats do. Why would a tree die if it didn't have any leaves? What kind of plants would you like to have in a garden? Were you scared when you first lost a tooth? How did it come out? Why do you think Julian's dad makes up so many scary ways to help Julian lose his tooth? Can being scared be fun?  How did you meet your first friend? What happened that caused you to be friends? The recipe for a Pudding The recipe for A Pudding Like a Night on the Sea is reached by a click here.

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