Monday, September 10, 2018

Wolf In Snow Review




The newest Caldecott winner, Wolf in the Snow, is a wonderful visual narrative that uses a variety of visual image to depict the story of a young girl lost in the snow and helped by wolves to return home safely. 

The book is a traditional home-away-home narrative that depicts the adventures and turmoils of a little girl that wanders out in the snow. The opening of the book has several pages of illustrations that appear before the title page - an interesting thing to point out to young readers! In addition there is an opening and closing image that depicts the family through the portal of a living room window. This portal serves to open the narrative and come the story. 

Delightful images in watercolor and ink create a lovely picturebook worth sharing with young readers.

Here are some reviews of the book on Goodreads 

Some information about the Author-Illustrator:

Matthew Cordell is the Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator of Wolf in the Snow, Trouble GumAnother Brotherhello! hello!, and Wish. He has illustrated numerous books by renowned authors including Philip Stead (Special Delivery), Rachel Vail (the Justin Case series), and Gail Carson Levine (Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems). He lives with his family in Gurnee, Illinois.

Here is the website of the author-illustrator:


Matthew Cordell writing about this book:

Up until WOLF, all of the books I’ve both written and illustrated have started with a story, which has started with a real thing that has happened in my life. My earliest author/illustrator picture books, TROUBLE GUM and ANOTHER BROTHER, were adapted from things that happened in my childhood. And my own children gifted me with the ideas for HELLO! HELLO!, WISH, and DREAM. WOLF IN THE SNOW was a completely different… animal. (I know… sorry.)
WOLF started not with a story, but with a picture I drew. It was not a picture drawn for a story or on any sort of assignment. It was just an image that popped into my head. One that I needed to commit to paper, and would then be done with. It was this:

Naturally, as one does in this day and age, I posted that picture to Facebook. Surprisingly, it got a pretty strong reaction. Most of which were comments like, “I hope this is for a book you’re working on!” It wasn’t, of course, but with that kind of encouragement, I began to wonder if it was something I could elaborate upon. I was inspired enough by the suspense and characters in the drawing to want to know more myself. But I’ve never been good at pulling a complete and well-made story from a single image. So, I was not excited about trying it again. And yet I did. Sort of.
I decided to first try and do some research. I’d drawn a wolf with little to no idea about what wolves were really like. Other than... I thought they were generally malevolent creatures. Wicked and selfish and hungry for anything that got in their way. My idea of wolves was, probably, mostly established by the likes of The 3 Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Once I started diving into documentaries and non-fiction texts about wolves, I realized that all of what I thought I knew was completely untrue.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Top Ten Postmodern Picturebooks

Top Ten List: Favorite Postmodern Picturebooks
Frank Serafini
(Originally published on the Nerdy Book Club Blog)

When I started teaching children’s literature, I was drawn to picturebooks, in particular a weird set of books that I came to know by the label “postmodern picturebooks.” What is interesting about postmodern picturebooks is not necessarily what they are, but what they can do for readers and literacy educators. Postmodern picturebooks invite students to navigate non-linear structures and attend to the various symbolic representations, literary codes and conventions in order to make sense of the complexities inherent in these texts. Postmodern picturebooks distance readers from text, often frustrating traditional reading expectations and practices, and position readers in more active, interpretive roles forcing them to utilize a variety of interpretive strategies in order to make sense of these complex texts.

Postmodern picturebooks often contain non-linear plots, polyphonic narrators, intertextual references, a blending of genres, and indeterminacies. Here is a brief list of some of the characteristics of Postmodern Picturebooks.

Postmodern Picture books:

  • expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader
  • may be self-referential – they discuss their own creation or existence
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony
  • often contain surrealistic images
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images
  • mock traditional formats
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone
  • contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
  • often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, “characters reading about their own fictional lives
  • feature typographic experimentation
  • feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
  • illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles
And now to the books…
#10 – McGuire, R. (1997). What’s wrong with this book? New York: Viking

What’s Wrong with This Book? is the question author-illustrator Richard McGuire asks readers to consider when they pick up this fun picturebook. From the time you try to open it (it opens backwards) to the weird illustrations, this book is simply playful. The story isn’t as important as the play on book format featured throughout the book. This book just makes you reconsider what a book is supposed to be.

#9 – Scieszka, J. (1992). The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales.  New York: Viking.

The Stinky Cheeseman has become a classic postmodern picturebook very quickly. Most children recognize this book by former Children’s Literature Ambassador Jon Sciezka and award winning illustrator Lane Smith. The parodies of traditional fairy tales coupled with the playful design of the book makes this picturebook truly postmodern. The narrator Jack gets called out by the little red hen for his inability to keep the stories straight. Throughout the book there are aspects of self-referentiality as the title page comes crashing down and the red hen wants to know who the ISBN guy is.

#8 – Burningham, J. (1977). Come away from the water, Shirley. New York: HarperCollins.

Whether John Burningham ever intended this picturebook as a postmodern text or not, the dual storylines make it a classic in this genre. Shirley and her parents go for a day trip to the beach. One side of the page features the parents version of the events, while on the other side we see what Shirley sees. Let’s just say Shirley’s world is a much better place to play around.

#7 – Watt, M. (2009). Chester. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
Chester is one of award-winning author-illustrator Melanie Watt’s most endearing characters.

Featured in three different books, Chester the cat does not like it when he isn’t the center of attention. As the author tries to tell the story of a country mouse, Chester interrupts her, draws all over her illustrations and rethinks the story to suit his personality and tastes. The battle lines are drawn, but Watt has a few tricks left up her sleeve. The playful parody of who really writes a book will keep you laughing all the way through.

#6 – Child, L. (2002). Who's Afraid of the Bid Bad Book? New York: Hyperion.
Herb loves books so much he takes them wherever he goes. He eventually falls asleep and ends up in his fairy tale picturebook, where he meets many characters and tries to get back home – sounds like a fairy tale in a fairy tale. The concept of a book is disrupted and questions the reality of in story and out of story experiences. Playfulness and parody are center stage as Herb wanders along in the story world.

#5 – Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman. London: Heinemann, William Ltd.
The Jolly Postman is another of those classic postmodern picturebooks, ground-breaking in the changes in format it featured and in it’s parody of familiar fairy tales and fairy tale characters. Like the Trues Story of the Three Little Pigs, it was one of the first. In this picturebook, the postman delivers farcical letters and catalogues to fairy tale characters. Humorous letters playing with the essential characters we have come to know and love. This interactive picturebook has long been a favorite.

#4 – Gravett, E. (2006). Wolves. New York: Simon and Schuster.
One of my new favorites is Wolves by Emily Gravett. In this multiple storyline picturebook, a naïve rabbit is lured to check out a book on Wolves from the West Bucks Public Burrowing Library. After checking the book out, and reading about the dangers of wolves, the rabbit is stalked by a real wolf. The story contains an alternative ending for more gentle readers. Trying to figure out how this story works is half the fun. It requires more than one go around for sure.

#3 – Macauley, D. (1990). Black and white. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Black and White won the Caldecott Medal in 1991 and set the stage for other Postmodern Picturebooks to follow. Non-linear story lines, surrealistic art, self-referential author’s note, use of peritextual information, multiple perspectives – it’s all in there.
#2 – Weisner, D. (2001). The three pigs. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

One of my all-time favorite picturebooks, The Three Pigs is such a fantastic story that one must read and experience it for oneself in order to truly appreciate it. Talking with David Wiesner about his creation, he explained that the story is really about finding one’s way home through stories, and what lies beyond the images in a picturebook – as the three pigs find out when they leave their original story. He used the story of the three pigs because what characters are motivated to leave their story more than the three pigs? Be sure to consider what the “white space” is as you enjoy this book.

#1 Postmodern Picturebook – Browne. A. (1998). Voices in the park. New York: DK

Without a doubt, one of the greatest picturebooks ever written, illustrated and designed is Voices in the Park. From the first time I read this in 2000, I was intrigued with what Anthony Browne was doing. This is a second version of a story originally told in A Walk in the Park (recently re-released). Told in four voices, each character reveals his or her perspective about a trip to the park.  Browne takes on social issues without ever revealing a preferred perspective. The surrealistic images pay homage to Rene Magritte’s work and offer the reader much to consider.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Best of Frank Serafini: Rethinking Comprehension


I would like teachers to focus their attention on comprehending, not comprehension. Comprehending is an action verb, connoting a process, whereas comprehension is a noun, suggesting a thing or commodity. Too often our instruction, assessments and classroom discussions focus on some amount of knowledge or attribute that can be measured or carried away from a reading event. I would like to see teachers focus on the process of making sense, not simply the residuals of reading.

To offer a definition, I see comprehending as a process of actively constructing meaning in transaction with texts in a particular social context. This definition, which was constructed through my own research and experiences, the writings of various reading and literary theorists and reading researchers, including Louise Rosenblatt, Frank Smith, David Pearson, Kathleen McCormick, Allan Luke, and Robert Scholes, will provide the foundation for the lessons contained throughout this book.

I believe that reading, namely constructing meaning with texts, is both an individual cognitive process, and a social process that derives meaning from the contexts in which it occurs. Comprehending is a sustained cognitive and social activity that involves the successful orchestration of language and thinking processes. These processes begin with the noticing or perception of textual and visual elements and ends with the construction and reconsideration of meanings. I use the plural “meanings” to suggest that the meanings constructed by readers are temporary, multiple, and open to revision.
Here are several additional assumptions on which my definition of reading comprehension is based:
·      There is no unmediated access to texts, texts are read by readers that come to the process with particular experiences, understandings, and knowledge. The book does not read itself, it must be read by someone.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always socially constructed and historically embedded in local and particular contexts. In other words, we never read in a vacuum. Readers always read some particular text, at some particular time and place, with an author and the language and history of the reader’s culture and experiences involved in the process.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always derived in political, social, historical and cultural contexts. In other words, particular interpretations or meanings work towards particular interests. Each and every time we read a text we bring our own experiences and our histories of who we are to the reading event. These socio-cultural factors affect how we read, what we read, and the meanings and interpretations we construct with texts.
·      There is no transcendent authority (objective presence) to refer to when attempting to establish the “truth” of a particular reading. We choose to acknowledge particular readings as more or less viable. Main ideas are constructed, not discovered by close examination of the text. In other words, when someone in authority, for example a test maker, decides what the main idea of a text selection, this idea is endorsed by that authority. Main ideas are created, not found.
·      Every classroom is a site for the production of meanings. Every interpretive community has some allegiance to a particular literary tradition or perspective, and each literary practice functions to close off possible readings (meanings) from other perspectives. In some classrooms, being able to find the one, correct main idea may be endorsed, whereas in another classroom, being able to defend alternative interpretations may be valued. Each classroom has its own set of rules for determining what is valued as a reader and expresses these values through the expectations set and the experiences provided and endorsed.

I believe, there is no singular, objective truth contained within a text, but many truths, each with its own authority and its own warrants for viability. Additionally, since there is no “objective” meaning of a text, comprehension is concerned with the viability of interpretations, how interpretations become useful, and the social negotiations of these various meanings. There are multiple meanings and interpretations that arise in transactions with texts; some viable, some not. The Reading Workshop, with its constituent readers, becomes the social milieu in which the viability of a particular interpretation is discussed, challenged and warranted. Reading comprehensions instruction should focus on understanding texts from a variety of perspectives and learning how these perspectives endorse and dismiss particular meanings and interpretations.
            In order for readers to construct meaning in transaction with texts, they must understand the codes and conventions of written language, become familiar with the vocabulary used by the author, and be able to connect the text with their own experiences and background knowledge. Jonathan Culler suggests one’s literary competence or comprehension is based on a readers’ understandings of the codes and conventions used by the author. Schema theorists believe that reading comprehension is the ability of a reader to accommodate and assimilate new information from a text into one’s existing schemas and background knowledge.
            In every reading event there are four major components or perspectives:
  • the text
  • the reader
  • the author
  • the context (both immediate and sociocultural)
Each literary theory highlights one of these components, while still maintaining the presence of the others. For example, reader response theories, as the name suggests, focus on the role of the reader in constructing meaning, their experiences, cultures and psychological makeup. Historical criticism focuses on the life and times of the author to understand how the text was created and the possible meanings available. Socio-culturally based literary theorists focus, not on the reader as an individual agent acting independently, but the culture and contexts in which the reader resides and operates. The New Critics focus on the text in and of itself. This perspective has dominated literature education for many decades. Each and every literary perspective focuses on one aspect of the reading event, trying to understand how that component plays into the meanings constructed and available, while downplaying the other components.

For me, the literal text is the point of departure in comprehending and interpreting a text, not the finish line. Reading is about appropriating or contextualizing the meanings constructed in transaction with texts into one’s own experiences or knowledge base. It is this connection between the text we encounter and the world in which we live that is the focus of many of our lessons described throughout the book. The texts is where we begin, not where we end.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Best of Frank Serafini: Assessment Windows


I have used the term “windows,” as many other educators have before me, to describe the assessment instruments used to generate information about the students in my class. I chose the term windows because it describes the importance of observation and the limited scope of any one assessment technique. Teachers “look through” these assessment windows at their students during actual literacy events. These assessments are observational guides, designed to hone teachers powers of observation and make their assessments more meaningful.
There is no single window, no single assessment, that provides access to the complete child. In other words, each window reveals information about a child as much as it conceals information. Each assessment window calls forth different aspects of a child’s behaviors, abilities and dispositions. It is only through the use of a variety of assessment windows that a more extensive understanding of a child’s literate abilities emerges.
When through a window, we often find a bit of reflection of ourselves bouncing back. It is the same with these assessment windows. As we generate information about our students, we also generate information about our teaching, our classroom and ourselves. For example, when we review the artifacts collected in our students’ portfolios (treasuries), we can reflect on what we have taught during the year, what has been given the most attention and possibly what was missing.
            In addition, I have chosen the term window because assessment windows, just like windows in the real world, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some windows offer us a wide view of the world and some only a small portal through which to observe the events around us. It is the same with our assessment windows. Let’s say you were going to buy a new house and you wanted to get a sense of what it was like, but your realtor was running late and all you could do was walk around the house and look through the windows. No single window would allow you to see everything inside the house. However, by walking around and looking through a variety of windows, from a variety of vantage points, you might be able to build up an understanding of what the house contained. Eventually, your realtor arrives and opens the door for you to enter the premises, wander around and get a better sense of what is actually in the house. This works great for home buying. Unfortunately, we cannot open the door and wander around in our students’ minds or their experiences. All we can do is look through the assessment windows we create to understand what they are doing, are able to do, and need more support in doing.
            I have also purposefully chosen to use the term “generate” rather than the terms “gather” or “collect” to describe the process by which information is produced utilizing these assessment windows. I chose the word generate because it describes how teachers actively select, observe, create and revise the information they use to make instructional decisions. This information does not come to us ready made, it is generated through the processes and instruments we select and the knowledge base we bring to the observed learning events. Different assessment windows generate different information. In other words, we are only able to see our students through the windows and opportunities we make available. Each window limits our view, and at the same time makes observation and generating information possible. Because of this, we need to be careful about the assessment windows and techniques we select because they determine in part how we come to know our students as readers.
Sources of Information
            In order to understand the variety of assessment windows we might utilize to generate information, we need to first consider the types of information that are available to the classroom teacher. In other words, what will we observe, where and when will we make our observations, what information is of value, and how does this information present itself? Basically, we have available to us the same types of information that qualitative researchers draw upon when conducting research studies. The three main sources of information we may draw upon to understand students’ literate abilities are:
  1. Artifacts – the products students create when reading and responding to what is being read. Anything tangible that can be collected and put in a portfolio is an artifact. For example, literature response notebook entries, charts, response activities, or book reviews are all types of artifacts.
  2. Observations – the notes we create by watching students engage in literate activities. For example, observing students’ responses during whole group read alouds, notes taken during a literature discussion, general observational notes about students’ reading preferences or selection of books, or notes taken when listening to a student read aloud.
  3. Interactions – the discussions and communications we have with students on a daily basis. Unlike observations, interactions require the teacher to interact with the student, rather than passively observe. This type of information is generated by asking particular questions from an interview protocol, or conducting daily “check-in conferences” with students. 
These sources of information are found in a variety of settings and provide the classroom teacher with the information necessary to make more effective decisions regarding instructional approaches, learning experiences and interventions. For example, we can observe students preparing to read, selecting a book and choosing to sit in a particular place to read. We can use a particular instrument to observe readers during the act of reading, or we can look at what they create when they have finished reading. The following chart (Figure 2.2) gives some examples of the types of questions teachers can ask about readers before, during, and after reading a text.

Sources of Information About Reading
1. Before Reading
What strategies do students use for selecting a text?
How does a student approach a text? (Do they skim through it? Read the title page? Look at the end pages and other peritextual information?)
Are students able to state their purposes for reading a particular text?
When and where do students choose to read?
2. During Reading
Does the student demonstrate immediate emotional reactions - laugh, cry etc.
Is the student able to code or mark important passages in the text during reading for further inquiry?
Is the student able to stop and this aloud during his or her reading? What does the student talk about?
As a student reads a text, what strategies does he or she employ? Is the student fluently reading, or is her or his reading choppy? Is the student able to adjust his or her rate of reading to ensure understanding?
3. After Reading:
Is a student able to talk about the text when finished? Can he or she paraphrase or summarize what has been read? Does the student draw inferences from the text?
Can students write a response entry in their literature response notebook?
Are students able to answer questions about what has been read?
Can students respond in other ways (write a book review, draw a picture, act ot the story) to what has been read?

We, as teachers, have available to us a wide variety of information that can be used to provide evidence of a student’s reading processes, preferences and strategies. Each source provides a different type of information which helps us to come to know our students as readers and literate beings. Various assessment windows or data generating techniques are used to tap into these sources of information, and it is to these assessment windows and observational techniques I now turn.
Efficient Assessment Windows
            I have relied upon many different assessment windows over my years of experience as a classroom teacher in order to come to know my students as readers and writers. Some windows have generated a wealth of information, while others were not worth the time I spent using them, either because they took too much time away from my instruction, or the information they provided was not very helpful in understanding my students. The windows I will share with you in this chapter are the ones that provided the most information with the least amount of interruption to my teaching. In addition, they generated information during actual reading events, not the contrived scenarios that mimic real reading that are part of so many standardized tests. It is because of these characteristics I call them “efficient” assessment windows. 

My Top Ten Efficient Assessment Windows
  1. Observational Records
  2. Observational Checklists
  3. Reading Interviews and Conferences
  4. Reading Response Notebooks
  5. Oral Reading Analyses
  6. Think Aloud Protocols
  7. Retellings
  8. Reflection Logs
  9. Book Reviews
  10. Treasuries