Category Archives: Book Lists

Sparking the Imagination with Written Imagery

As a classroom teacher of upper MG readers, I’ve been wondering lately on the constant technological pummeling we get from images—gaming, TV, movies, computers, tablets, phones. Screened devices have a powerful attention-grabbing effect on kids, and with so many stimulating colors, photos, Snapchat animations, and videos to look at, the modern-day imagination is contending with a very different ball of yarn than in decades past. It’s great that we can Google-Machine “Roman Empire ruins” and see hundreds of pictures, and it’s fun to test our eye-hand coordination by slashing air-borne fruit, chopping ropes, or helping a chicken across a road. But for many readers, after all that color and movement and music, the imagination may balk a bit when given black words on a white page.

For that reason, it might be pretty difficult for a middle grade teacher, parent, librarian, or writer to hook readers on books with descriptive passages, figurative language, or a generally more literary bent. But instead of avoiding imagery, it may be more important than ever to give readers an opportunity to envision and imagine through the words on the page. We should strive to provide work-out routines and fitness centers for the imagination in our stories through language and description. Inclusion of imagery in MG stories will complement the reader’s experience and ultimately improve and enhance the reader’s imagination. And imagination is important in any setting, as it drives flexible thinking and creative problem solving.

So, in order to spark readers’ imaginations, how do you recognize good imagery in MG works, and how do you write your own? Here are some qualities typically associated with imagery:

  • Imagery is language that employs a mental use of the five senses.
  • It can use certain figurative language devices like similes and metaphors, personification, and hyperbole, but it can exist without any other lit devices being present, too.
  • Good imagery isn’t fluffy or fancy or filled with words you’d find on the SAT. Sometimes, in fact, incredibly simple syntax and short phrases make up excellent imagery.
  • Imagery lets you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the surroundings  in the character’s world, and it draws the reader in with those experiences.
  • Most importantly, good imagery leads the imagination off-leash—it guides, but never forces. The imagination has to be allowed to run free, if it’s to grow strong.

Here are some scenes in three works of MG fiction with imagery to consider:

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The description of Camazotz is brilliantly creepy in its simplicity. L’Engle’s choice of short, clipped words and phrases reflect the vision concocted in the reader’s imagination of this austere town where anomalies are forbidden:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of land in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.

Things get more eerie with the rhythmical description of the kids outside all those houses, girls jumping rope and boys bouncing balls:

Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

The imagery prompts our imaginations to not only see Camazotz but to hear and feel its driving beat, too.

Sarah Jean Horwitz’s Carmer and Grit, Book One: The Wingsnatchers. Big, immediate conflicts or surprised exclamations from characters can work beautifully as openers in MG fiction and nonfiction. But atmospheric imagery can be used just as masterfully to hook the reader into the story. In this book, the two-and-a-half-page opener has no dialogue and no loud clatter of forces. But the tone of mystery, the discordant sounds, and the symbolic light/darkness imagery all work together to pull the reader in:

At the South Gate, just outside the winding iron bars, the Autocat waits. Its jeweled eyes gleam in the darkness. It watches as each golden lantern on the pathway blinks out, one by one, and it growls–a rough, scraping sound like metal on metal, a sound never heard in the garden before. The creature slinks off into Skemantis’s black night, its mission accomplished.

Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rivka. Good imagery keeps firmly in the voice of the 1st person character, in this case, a young Russian refugee fleeing to America in 1919 and seeing Poland for the first time:

The same crooked cottages, the same patchy roads, the same bony fences leaning in to the dust. Looking out from the train, we see people dressed like us, in browns and blacks; people wrapped in layers of clothes.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share thoughts you have on imagery in MG writing, or name some writers you enjoy who do a great job at sparking readers’ imaginations.

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books– In the Classroom

We’ve taken a few of the titles from last week’s book list – Science in Fiction Books – and found some fantastic ways to use them in the classroom. There are lots of links and places for teachers, students, and parents to go from here!  Have fun!

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas   by Jacqueline Houtman

Science comes easily to Eddy (Edison) Thomas. Social relationships? Not so much. On her website, Houtman shares a number of classroom activities which will prod middle-grade readers toward deeper discovery and understanding. Here are a couple.  See more cross-curricular classroom activities here. 

Design an experiment to test Fact Number 28 (p. 73): Listening to slow music can lower your heart rate, while music with a faster tempo can increase your heart rate. Who would be your subjects? How would you measure heart rate? What other factors might affect your experiment? How would you make sure that you are only measuring the effect of the music?

Find out how the special effects in your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie were done. (Many DVDs come with special feature discs that explain how the effects were achieved, or you can use the Internet.) How have special effects in movies changed in the last 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? How did they do special effects before there were computers and computer animation?

Eye of the Storm  by Kate Messner

A summer at science camp turns into a life-or-death situation for Jaden and her new friends Risha and Alex in this thrilling science-packed middle-grade novel.  Teachers can find a thorough Eye of the Storm Discussion Guide on author Kate Messner’s website as well as a link to a gallery of Eye of the Storm Resources on Pinterest. 

Is there a Placid Meadows in your state?  Use data from the national weather service to look at where tornados or super storms have occurred in your state in the past year. Map locations and decide if there is a spot that, like the fictional Placid Meadows, seems immune from such disasters. Or, is there a “tornado alley” or path that seems to attract severe weather time and time again?

Using gripping fiction like  Eye of the Storm in conjunction with nonfiction books about climate change and super storms can add a personal element to research and discussion of these topics.

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson

Truly a story of discovery, this novel takes readers along with Angel, the 11-year-old main character, on a journey in which she’ll find out things about herself and about the universe that she never believed possible.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has created a wonderful teacher’s resource for The Same Stuff as Stars here.  (Scroll past the resources for one of Paterson’s other books, but tuck those away for another day!)

As Angel learns more about the constellations, teachers and parents can help young readers do the same with websites such as KidsAstronomy.com and NASA Kids Club.

The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman

Every great story and every great scientific discovery have started with the same question:  “What if?” So, what if every adult in the whole town of St. Polonius fell asleep and the children were left to run the town?

There’s so much fun to be had with a story that mixes science and problem-solving with  politics and mystery.

The Investigative Process and Premise –  Scientists begin their investigative process by asking questions.  Authors create a premise before drafting a novel. They are both asking and answering the “What if” question. Take a look at the books your class had read this year. What is the “what if” question posed by the author. Now, take a look the science topics you’ve discussed this year. What questions did the scientists ask for their investigations?  Now ask your students the following questions:   Can your science topics lead to new fictional story ideas?  Can fiction stories lead you to further investigate a science topic?

What is hibernation? Using the unexpected hibernation of the adults in St. Polonius to launch a study of real hibernation. Which animals hibernate and why? Where and when do animals hibernate?  Use facts found at How Stuff Works  to chart your findings on graphs or maps.

Add to the list!  If you have a classroom activity to accompany a sciencey-fiction book you’ve read, post it in the comments below. We love sharing your ideas!

Michelle Houts is the author of ten books for young readers. Her Lucy’s Lab series is another example of science-filled fiction. Find Lucy’s Pinterest page with classroom activities and experiments here.

Jolabokaflod: Middle Grade Authors Share Their Giving Lists

Long before I first heard of the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod (which roughly translates to Christmas Book Flood in English – and is the tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve, then sitting together as a family and reading), I created a little winter book tradition of my own.

Every year, right around the beginning of December, I buy myself a book. It’s almost always a hard copy – a rare treat for me – and something that serves only one purpose – to be a total and complete pleasure read. No craft books. No self-help. No keeping up with my genre books. Just pure pleasure coupled with the promise to set aside some time to curl up with a hot chocolate and read just for the pure joy of it.

Because I enjoyed this little treat so much, I decided to extend the giving to family and friends, and created a second tradition – a New Year’s Gift. Every year, I give the people closest to me a book that represents their dreams, goals, or desires for the upcoming year – and may serve as a launching-off spot – or a touchstone – for their plans. I’ve given everything from Axe-Man comics to books of Daily Rituals, to magazine subscriptions – anything that I think might help or inspire the person in the new year.

This year, I’ve added some new people to my giving list,  so I turned to my own personal panel of experts  – my middle grade author friends – for advice. I asked them what middle grade books they were giving as gifts this holiday season. Here are their suggestions:

Sally J. Pla, author of The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine (coming Feb. 6, 2018!)

I think Xmas/the holidays are a great time to gift picture books, even to adults. The best of them are such beautiful works of art.There are two PBs I’ll gift to young families, because I think they should be in every kid’s library. PEOPLE, a classic PB by Peter Speier visually depicts the beautiful physical diversity of people around the world — spreads it out in a cornucopia of hundreds of images of noses, ears, hands, outfits, etc. The result is this beautiful mozaic of how wide and diverse and amazing the world is. Then: (2) COME WITH ME by my friend Holly McGhee is a sweet sensitive story about how even the tiniest, smallest acts of kindness can help address the bad stuff in the world. As for MG novels to gift: there are far too many wonderful ones to name, and I usually like to customize the book to the particular kid. But one particular Christmas-themed warm-and-fuzzy book that I think will have great general appeal is Karina Glaser’s wonderful THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141st STREET.

 

 

Melissa Roske, author of Kat Greene Comes Clean

For the holidays this year, I will be bestowing copies of Jonathan Rosen’s hilarious MG adventure, NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES, on young readers here and abroad. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny, CUDDLE BUNNIES has a likable and hugely relatable main character (Devin Dexter), plus slew of colorful supporting characters – including a sock-puppet-wielding warlock named Herb. I can’t recommend this title enough. It’s BUN-tastic! Hoppy holidays!

 

Supriya Kelkar, author of Ahimsa

I’m giving REFUGEE by Alan Gratz to an older MG reader. It is a powerful, gripping, eye-opening story that I am sure she will not be able to put down.

 

 

Jarrett Lerner, author of Enginerds

Just a FEW of the MG books I’m gifting — 1. Jodi Kendall’s THE UNLIKELY STORY OF A PIG IN THE CITY. Not only is it a wonderful (and wonderfully written) book, it is simply perfect for this time of year. It is full of warm, utterly lovely family scenes, and reading them serves as an always-welcome reminder of what matters most during this holiday season. 2. Caroline Carlson’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE. Caroline’s prose sparkles, and her storytelling prowess is second-to-none. I absolutely loved her previous series, and was thrilled to hear she was penning a mystery. It is, as expected, impeccable. And who doesn’t love to curl up with a finely written, cleverly crafted mystery during their days off? 3. Jan Gangei’s THE WILD BUNCH. I didn’t keep count, but I’m fairly certain that this is the book that made me laugh out loud the most this year. Its zany characters leap off of the page, and get themselves into one hilariously outrageous situation after the next. Amidst all the silliness, however, there is a subtle thread of seriousness, there for the interested reader to unpack and consider.

           

 

Janet Sumner Johnson, author of The Last Great Adventure of the PB & J Society.

My sons have been dying to read the 3rd book in the Bounders series, THE FORGOTTEN SHRINE, by Monica Tesler. It releases on Dec. 12th, so perfect timing for Christmas!

 

 

Kristin Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

My daughter (10) adores graphic novels, so she is getting ALL’s FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL by Victoria Jamieson and PASHMINA by Nidhi Chanani.

 

    

What books are you planning on giving this season  – to yourself, loved ones, or even a perfect stranger? Let us know in the comments section below!