Category Archives: ELA

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.

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books — Book List

Welcome to December! You’ve heard of science fiction, well this month we are focusing on science IN fiction! These middle grade novels  include  inspiring characters who love science. We’ve included a “cheat-sheet” breakdown beside each book to alert you to the STEM topic included.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Lucy’s Lab chapter book series by Michelle Houts
[book 1: habitats, book 2: states of matter, book 3:fossils]
In book one of the series, Lucy’s teacher tells her that they will have their very own lab in the classroom, complete with lab coats and goggles. Lucy can’t wait! Lucy’s first inquiry-based project? Find out where the squirrels will live once the tree in front of the school is cut down.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtmann
[invention, engineering, physics]
Eddy is a science geek who has problems communicating with others. He must learn to trust his real friends and use his talents to succeed. *Library Media Connection

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Red Blazer Girls by Michael Beil
[math]
A series of four titles for mystery lovers, and the detectives are girls who love math. In The Secret Cellar (book 4), Sophie finds a secret message in an antique fountain pen. To solve the mystery, the girls must solve puzzles which lead to a hidden treasure.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Frank Einstein series by Jon Scieszka
[invention, engineering, physics, robotics]
Science experiments, inventions, jokes, and a kid-genius are the subject of this series. Frank Einstein loves to figure out how the world works by creating unusual household contraptions that are part science, and part imagination. “I never thought science could be funny,” say Jeff Kinney (author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid).

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
[science of life and death, genetics, science of aging]
A new boy enters Ellie’s life who looks a lot like her dead grandfather, a scientist who’s always been obsessed with immortality. Could the pimply boy really be Grandpa  Melvin?

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Same  Stuff as Stars by Katherine Patterson
[astronomy]
The bright part in Angel’s life is learning about the stars, planets, and constellations from a mysterious stranger. *Kirkus

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner
[climatology]
This title is set in a future time when massive storms are part of everyday life. NSTA/CBC Outstanding Trade Book

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
[zoology, oceanography]
This story focuses on grief, wonder, life, death, and oceanography. Benjamin weaves in details about jellyfish and the ocean into her lyrical text. National Book Award Finalist

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Saving Wonder by Mary Knight
[conservation, environmental health]
Set in the Appalachian Mountains, Saving Wonder tells the story of Curley Hines, who must speak out against Big Coal to save his mountain. Green Earth Book Award

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
[evolution]
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is an inquisitive eleven-year old in 1890 who will inspire budding naturalists. 2010 Newbery Award  (Look for the sequel)

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Cry of the Crow by Jean Craighead George
[ornithology, animal behavior]
Mandy’s family thinks of crows as pests and hunts them to protect their valuable strawberry crop. But when Mandy takes on the care of a baby crow  she is faced with difficult decisions and the struggles of growing up.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Someday Suitcase by Corey Ann Haydu
[health]
A mixture of science, art, magic, and love. Clover and Danny are two best friends who are better together. In fact, Clover thinks they’re symbiotic. In this poignant story, Haydu introduces readers to complex characters who face tough situations with friendship and love.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman
[science ethics]
On Founder’s Day in St. Polonius-on-the-Fjord, everyone over the age of twelve must eat a sliver of bear’s liver to celebrate the town’s history. When Jean Huddy finally comes of age to participate in this great honor, she pukes up her portion. A few hours later, all of St. Polonius’s adults fall into a deep sleep, and the children must run the town. Courage, teamwork, ans science come to the rescue to unlock this unusual mystery.

We could go on and on with lots of other great titles that include science in fiction. Can you name others?

 

STEM Tuesday book lists prepared by:

Nancy Castaldo has written books about our planet for over 20 years including her 2016 title, THE STORY OF SEEDS: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less To Eat Around The World, which earned the 2017 Green Earth Book Award and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia. She enjoys sharing her adventures, research, and writing tips with readers. Nancy also serves as the Regional Advisor of the Eastern NY SCBWI region. Her 2018 title is BACK FROM THE BRINK: Saving Animals from Extinction. www.nancycastaldo.com

Patricia Newman writes middle-grade nonfiction that inspires kids to seek connections between science, literacy, and the environment. The recipient of the Green Earth Book Award and a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru Science Books and Films Award, her books have received starred reviews, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. During author visits, she demonstrates how her writing skills give a voice to our beleaguered environment. Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com.

Check back every Tuesday of every month:

  • Week 1:  STEM Tuesday Themed Book Lists
  • Week 2:  STEM Tuesday in the Classroom
  • Week 3:  STEM Tuesday Crafts and Resources
  • Week 4:  STEM Tuesday Author Interviews and Giveaways