Tag Archives: literary motifs

What Makes a Good Children’s Book?

What makes a good children’s book? I’d suppose that’s a tough question to answer, otherwise Microsoft would have already written Newbery Notebook 1.0 and Caldecott Creator for Windows. A good children’s book is far from formulaic.

It seems, however, that Little, Brown Books has done a pretty good job of nailing some of the more prominently recurring traits of good children’s books (both novels and picture books). See the whole list at the Upstart Crow Literary blog (a cool place to peek behind the curtain of the writing and publishing biz).

What use is this list to the average classroom teacher?

  • It may help you understand why some books win with children while others fail. The list explains, for example, why a common literary motif of many children’s novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Flies, Narnia, Holes) is the removal of the protagonist (and other main characters) from adult supervision and control.
  • The individual attributes may help you create some connections between otherwise unrelated texts. One successful exercise with every novel, for example, is looking at how a character grows or changes over time. I’ve used this approach with Number the Stars, Because of Winn Dixie, Crash, Flipped, and Island of the Blue Dolphins to name just a few. Check out this sample recording sheet.
  • The list can be used a fairly accurate indicator of a book’s overall value when teachers must choose just two or three titles for study. Many teachers, for example, complain that their boys just don’t “get into” books which feature strong female protagonists. A book like Poppy, however, which features a female animal protagonist, is somehow more readily embraced.
  • Teachers can use the list as a reference for writing minilessons. If these are the traits that make good children’s books work, and if these are the attributes with which children have the most first-hand experience, then perhaps many of them could inform student writing as well.

How else do you see putting this list to work for you? Email me or leave a comment below!

(This same post also appears at my Teach with Picture Books site).


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Doom, Despair, and Agony on Me

“Doom, despair, and agony on me” were the cheery words that accompanied an old HeeHaw sketch in which two old coots in a corn field tried to outdo each other with their tales of woe. Funny in its hyperbole.

But in a recent discussion on the English Companion Ning, I asked, “Why is it that so many of our novels for middle and high schoolers deal with death?” Are those the only books worthy of study, or is it some weird fixation? Even this year’s Newbery Award Winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, seems to celebrate that theme (see book trailer below from HarperKids).

I received some profound and enlightening responses from my colleagues that are worth a read. If you’re not a member of the English Companion Ning yet, the sign-up is free and painless, and the collegial atmosphere is one you’ll enjoy.  And if you’re a teacher studying a novel in class that deals with death, be sure to weigh in on the discussion!

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60 Second Recap

If you haven’t checked out 60 Second Recap, you’re in for a treat. 60 Second Recap is a collection of video clips covering the plots, characters, symbolism, and more of favorite classic literature for teens. But it’s not a dry, overly-academic examination. It’s a lively conversation hosted by a real-life, somewhat zany hostess named Jenny (you can find her on Twitter).

The site’s overview gives you a sense of the tongue-in-cheek humor that’s behind this great site:

“Eat your lima beans,” Mom used to say.

And now that you’re out on your own, honestly, are lima beans a staple of your culinary repertoire?

There, in a lima bean, lies the problem confronting the great works of literature. We’re all forced to read them in school so we can get good grades so we can go to a good college so we can get a good job so we can forget all about that literature they used to force us to read so we could get good grades.

The 60second Recap™ aims to break this cycle of canonical irrelevance. We want to help teens (yes, teens of all ages!) engage with literature. We want to help them see it not as some chore to be endured, but as — dare we say it? — the gift of a lifetime. How? Through the language of our time — the language of video. Video that’s focused, engaging, informative … and short enough to hold just about anyone’s attention.

Smirk if you must. Consider this yet another mile-marker on civilization’s road to perdition. But here’s the fact: You won’t get non-readers to read by forcing them to read more. You’ll get them to read by opening their eyes to the marvels awaiting them between the covers of that homework assignment.

With the 60second Recap™, teens finally have an alternative to the boring, text-based study guides that have burdened them for generations. And — who knows? — maybe that’s just what they’ll need to begin a love affair with literature, one that will last a lifetime.

In addition to the videos on classics such as Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, Lord of the Flies, and Hamlet, users will find a section called Recap Resource which includes a Dictionary of Terms (allegory, motifs, subtext, protagonist, etc.) and How to Write a Paper (that Won’t Put your Teacher to Sleep).  Again, these are presented in video form, which them much less intimidating for the average high school user.

The site also features an area for video responses from users, and another for users to request titles for recapping.

I highly recommend you visit the site and give it a look! I’m curious to see how it will change as it grows.

Know another great site for teachers working with novels? Find me on Twitter!

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Don’t Know Much About Literature

This review of the upcoming Don’t Know Much About Literature by Kenneth C. Davis and Jenny Davis (Summer 2009, Harper Collins) is somewhat biased.

First of all, I was a huge fan of Kenneth C. Davis’ Don’t Know Much About History. I found that book to be equal parts entertainment and enlightment. I’m not even embarrassed to say that 50% of that book was news to me. I’d probably still be enjoying it even now, but it’s one of thsoe books that’s too good to keep to yourself. (And apparently to good to give back to its owner…)

Secondly, as a teacher, I’m a big fan of his Don’t Know Much About… series Don't Know Much About Literaturefor students. Profusely illustrated with just enough facts to get them interested in learning more. Don’t Know Much About the Presidents is one of my favorites.

Thirdly, I love literature, although judging by my poor performance on this book’s quizzes, I’m obviously not as well read as I should be!

Don’t Know Much About Literature is a fun way to assess your knowledge of literature old and new, and to gain some tidbits to share in your middle or high school class (or your next backyard barbecue). Selections are typically one page long, with half a dozen questions about authors, novels, lines, film and theatre adaptations, and literary honors.

Here are a few random questions to test your literary IQ:

1.Which Toni Morrison novel received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988?

2. Which book was the basis of the Broadway hit The Man of La Mancha?

3. Who opened their poem with this famous line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”?

4. Identify this short story from its first line: “In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

5. What was the first Agatha Christie novel to feature Miss Marple?

6. Who directed the 1980 version of The Shining?

 7. In what novel does this first line appear? “You’d better not never tell nobody but God.”

Do you even need to see the answers? C’mon, they were all easy, right? Well, just to check your spellings, if nothing else…

1. Beloved

2. Don Quixote

3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnet 13) 

4. A & P by John Updike

 5. Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

6. Stanley Kubrick

7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

If you scored 7 out of 7, I bow to your literary prowess! I missed the Miss Marple question and I’d be embarrassed to tell you my guess for #3.

So if you want a great gift for a teacher, a book of “stumpers” for your high school AP class, or just a fun read for yourself, you can preorder now and beat the rush!

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The Hero Myth

One topic which I casually mention in my How to Teach a Novel workshop that stirs a lot of interest is the Hero Myth as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

According to Campbell’s introduction,

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Described in greater detail, the journey of the hero typically includes most, if not all, of the following stages:

  • call to adventure: the character leaves his ordinary, exceedingly common life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world;
  • road of trials: there he encounters a number of tribulations, and often one exceedingly difficult challenge (he is often trained or advised by an older, wiser mentor);
  • the goal or book: a reward the hero receives as aa result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self;
  • the return to the ordinary world: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, knowing what he now knows;
  • the application of the boon: the hero applies his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place, or to right a wrong which he was previously under-equipped to face.

Sound familiar?

It’s the plot line of hundreds of books and movies, most easily recognized in Star Wars, Gladiator, the Matrix (see my cool post over at the Teaching that Sticks blog), and the Odyssey.

Less obvious is its appearance in The Lion King, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Dirty Dancing.Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing? Absolutely. Our heroine Frances, so naive to the ways of the world that she’s called Baby, enters the strange and sexy world of the Catskills resort employees. Arriving wide-eyed and innocent at the steamy after-hours dance carrying watermelons (I’ll leave you to analyze that), Baby suddenly realizes that the world she thinks she knows is just a facade. She is indoctrinated into this brave new world by street-wise and somewhat jaded Johnny Castle, who helps her discover herself in many ways, both G and PG-13. She returns to her world (and Daddy) with new knowledge about herself, and the ability to stand up for what is right.

Isn’t it nice to find that your guilty little pleasure is following in the footsteps of the Hero Myth?

Teaching students about this literary pattern really opens their eyes to just how many stories utilize its conventions. Student writers may also find that it’s useful for identifying weak points in their own stories.

A great place to start exploring more about the Hero Myth (or Hero’s Journey as it is alternately called) is by checking out the collected sites and activities at The Web English Teacher. And of course, for you purists, nothing beats the book.

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