5 Picture Books for Christmas – Part 2

Last week, we introduced our first five favorite holiday picture books. This week, we are going to show our final five Christmas books we adore! Some of these books are classics. On the other hand, you may not have heard of another book or two. That’s why we love these kinds of blog posts! Introducing you to new stories that you can share with your students is what warms our hearts, just like a cup of hot cocoa! Let’s dive into our 5 Picture Books for Christmas – Part 2.

#1 The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

A lot of our students know The Polar Express from the beloved and magical movie. When I would tell my elementary kiddos that it was first a book, some were quite shocked! Nevertheless, they quickly loved the book as much as the movie, if not more. The beautiful illustrations are just as enchanting as the motion picture. Chris Van Allsburg’s classic tale of a young boy on his journey to the true belief of the magic of Christmas captivates students as they also struggle with believing as they get older. The timeless dark train against the backdrop of the falling white snow creates a classic scene of Christmas. 

Publisher’s Synopsis: A young boy, lying awake one Christmas Eve, is welcomed aboard a magical train to the North Pole . . .Through dark forests, over tall mountains, and across a barren desert of ice, the Polar Express makes its way to the huge city standing alone at the top of the world, where the boy will make his Christmas wish.

#2 Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett

Any Jan Brett book is filled with gorgeous whimsical illustrations of the Swiss snowy countryside. Her books are filled with fun storylines, and beautiful imagery mirrored by detailed and enchanting drawings. When I think of a picture book that evokes Christmas and wintry magic, I think of Jan Brett. Gingerbread Friends is a sweet story perfect for the littlest elementary students. 

Publisher’s Synopsis: This Gingerbread Baby is looking for friends and finds an adventure he’ll never forget. The Gingerbread Baby is lonely and decides to do something about it. At a bakery, he dances and prances in front of a sugar cookie girl, trying to make friends. But she just stares and doesn’t say a word, like all the other sweet treats he tries to meet. Discouraged, the Gingerbread Baby runs home, chased by a long line of hungry creatures, where Mattie has a fantastic surprise for him–gingerbread friends that fill a giant fold-out page.

Check out our Gingerbread Friends unit here!

#3 The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

Ready to cry in front of your students? The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey will do just that! This was a classic tale I read to my elementary students every Christmas season. Filled with heartache, hope, and redemption, this story is thought-provoking and moving for students and adults alike. This story contains depth as well, making it wonderful for older elementary to middle school students. 

Publisher’s Synopsis: Jonathan Toomey is the best woodcarver in the valley, but he is always alone and never smiles. No one knows about the mementos of his lost wife and child that he keeps in an unopened drawer. But one early winter’s day, a widow and her young son approach him with a gentle request that leads to a joyful miracle. The moving, lyrical tale, gloriously illustrated by P.J. Lynch, has been widely hailed as a true Christmas classic. 

#4 Radiator the Snowman by Tami Parker

Written and illustrated by my mother, Tami Parker, Radiator the Snowman is a wonderful tale with deep lessons of true friendship, celebrating uniqueness, and being comfortable with just being yourself. Students will fall in love with Radiator, the snowman, and his furry friends. The author, an elementary school librarian, truly knows how to weave a story together to capture to hearts of students. 

Publisher’s Synopsis: Radiator the Snowman knew he was different from the other snowmen of his most distinguished village. These feelings had always been with him since he was first formed in the hands of the children of the local junk man to the present time period in which he was kept away from the finer snowmen on display in his village. However, Radiator’s chance to join this prestigious league soon arrives. Will he take this opportunity or decide to stay in the junkyard with his friends? Radiator the Snowman is a wonderful story to read to little ones when you want them to know how important they are to each person in their life and why they should never compare themselves to others.

#5 The Christmas Pine by Julia Donaldson

Newly published two months ago, the author of Room on the Broom has written a book that celebrates the joy and warmth of the holiday season as it follows the story of one Christmas tree on its journey to Trafalgar Square to become London’s official tree. The sweet and snuggly illustrations will charm your students as well as create that magical feeling around your classroom rug. 

Publisher’s Synopsis: Deep in a snowy wood stands a little pine tree with a special destiny: when it grows up, it’s going to be a fabulous Christmas tree! The tree travels far across the sea to shine in a city square. Crowds gather to admire it, children sing carols around it, and the tree brings joy and the spirit of the season to all who pass by. Inspired by the annual journey of London’s Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square, this story includes back matter detailing the tree’s history as a gift to the United Kingdom from the people of Norway in remembrance of the UK’s support during World War II – an enduring symbol of friendship and peace.

Conclusion:

December is a month full of wonderful opportunities to enchant readers with heartwarming holiday picture books. Take advantage of those cozy Christmas stories and create an atmosphere that highlights reading this holiday season in your classroom. It’ll make your heart melt like a gooey marshmallow in hot cocoa. 

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The Dark by Lemony Snicket Book Review

The month of October is upon us. We are fully into our lessons, teaching reading comprehension, how to write better sentences, paragraphs, research projects, etc. However, our students seem to have one thing on their mind and that is also that it is the month of Halloween. With this, I wanted to share The Dark by Lemony Snicket book review to give you something to help make it through this month.

Several times in the past week my students interrupted me in the middle of a lesson by raising their hand. Quickly, I smile because there is someone who is paying attention and wants to know more of the wonderous lesson I am teaching. Then I hear the magical words, “Is Halloween on a Monday or Friday?” 

So why should I fight this month and all of its pitfalls, but instead just embrace it? With this, I have chosen a quick and simple book that works so well with grades 4th through 7th. Our students may feel a childish picture book is beneath them. Nevertheless, I quickly inform my students that the same author of The Dark also wrote everyone’s favorite book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Once I say that, their ears perk up, and they want to know more.

Not only is The Dark a fun story to share, but it is also full of examples of personification, primal fear, and a deep need to conquer evil. Plus, it is adorable for your older students to remember their childhood when everything was so fearful during October, especially the dark.

The Dark is about a young lad named Lazslo, who is terrified of the dark. He avoids “the dark” as it mainly hangs out in the basement. Then, one night “the dark” is in his room as his nightlight bulb loses its spark. Lazslo, the young lad, must come face-to-face with his fears of “the dark,” while Lemony Snicket personifies “the dark” into a friendly being. This book contains a plethora of personification examples. 

Personification Examples

Personification is when something other than a human is given human characteristics in a story, paragraph, or sentence.

Examples:

The moon winked at the owl when the dark clouds wandered past. 

In this sentence, the moon winked at the owl. Of course, the moon can’t wink because it is definitely an inanimate object. As well, clouds can’t wander. Wandering is when one walks or moves in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way. Clouds may seem like they wander, but of course they too are inanimate objects that float or travel where the wind moves them.

Another example is from Patricia MacLachlan’s book, My Friend Earth.

“Under the white, the silent seed is cradled in the dark soil. Watching.

In this beautifully constructed sentence, one envisions a seed cradled in the dark by the earth’s soil as if the earth were its mother, gently clutching its child.

The last example is from The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

“And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy.”

Yes. These books were originally written for children. However, until older students journey back and study the writing techniques of these magnificent writers, these books haven’t been fully appreciated as they should. 

As C. S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” With that, I totally agree.

Author: Lemony Snicket, “The Dark

Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym for the writer, Daniel Handler. He was born on February 28, 1970, in California. He is married to a book illustrator, and they have one child named, Otto. Lemony Snicket is best known for his novel series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was made into a movie by Nickelodeon and a television show on Netflix. 

Daniel Handler graduated with a B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1992. He has always loved to read. One of his favorite authors was Roald Dahl, writer of James and the Giant Peach. Daniel Handler has published several books for adults as well. He is a seasoned accordion player and has played in a couple of bands.

Daniel Handler created the author Lemony Snicket as a type of additional character in his A Series of Unfortunate Events novels. Lemony Snicket breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, using a rare 2nd person point of view. He regularly explains difficult vocabulary, foreshadows events, and directly interacts with the audience based on the story. Lemony Snicket does not do this in The Dark, something he is known for. One of the funniest clips of Lemony Snicket explaining is below. If only he had created more for all of figurative language.

The Dark was the winner of the Annual Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding writing of a picture book writing in 2014. The Charlotte Zolotow Award is awarded annually to the best picture book of the year. The picture book must be published in the United States. The Charlotte Zolotow Award is awarded by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a children’s literature library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Illustrator: Jon Klassen, “The Dark

Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen illustrated The Dark. Jon Klassen is a Canadian writer and illustrator of children’s books. In 2011, the book, I Want My Hat Back, won the American 2013 Caldecott Medal and the English equivalent, Kate Greenaway Medal. The Dark made history an illustrator won both awards for the same book in the same year.

Another connection for your students is the fact that Klassen is an animator. His animations appear in the movies, Kung Fu Panda and the spine tingler, Coraline. I am sure just telling your students that bit of information would definitely peak their interest.

Klassen was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and raised in the Niagara Falls area. Klassen studied animation at Sheridan College. Later, he moved to Los Angeles after graduation. Please visit his website for examples of his work. I am sure your budding artist would love to see what he has accomplished.

The illustrations in The Dark takes us along on a journey of following a young lad through his enormous old house. As we follow along, we see the surroundings of the home through the boy’s viewpoint. By seeing the dark through his viewpoint, we see it as he sees it. Shadows around every corner, dark stairs leading to the basement, and the dark waiting for him at every turn.

To enhance this book, you may talk with your students of the importance of illustrations. Illustrations play a huge part of setting the mood of a story. Light and shadow is definitely one thing that Klassen did an excellent job with.

To read more about creating the mood of a story with illustrations, please visit…

The Dark by Lemony Snicket Activities, Personification, and Writing Project

Our activities will take you from beginning to the end with the reading of Lemony Snicket’s Award Winning story, The Dark, to thoroughly teaching your students all about personifications by helping them create their own story concentrating on this important figurative language element. These activities will give your students perfect examples and activities using personification and how to use this figurative language element in their writing through our activities, graphic organizers, and writing project.

Conclusion

If you want to grab your student’s attention this October, and you want to excite them about writing as well, please grab a copy of The Dark. Written by the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events and illustrated by one of the animators of the movie Coraline, it is sure to grab their attention. In addition, they will be immersed in the element of personification in a whole new spooky way.

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Want more? Click over to our other blog post, How to Teach Writing with Lemony Snicket.

Pam Munoz Ryan: Using an Author Study in the Classroom

Pam Munoz Ryan is an author to be trusted. If you have ever read one of her stories, you know you’re bound to have a captivating and emotional experience when you pick up one of her books. Pam Munoz Ryan is the perfect writer to begin an author study within the classroom. Her books contain profound life lessons and deep themes.

Pam Munoz Ryan:
Using an Author Study in the Classroom

Pam Munoz Ryan is a winner of multiple awards. Two such are the Newberry Honor Medal and a NAPPA Gold award, among countless others. She is a New York Times Bestseller author. Her novels are perfect for upper elementary to middle school readers. Ryan is known for her multi-cultural literature, strong protagonists, and deep themes written in an age-appropriate way. 

I first found Pam Munoz Ryan when teaching elementary grades. I taught her novel, Esperanza Rising. It is a wonderful historical-fictional book based on true events surrounding her own grandmother Esperanza Ortega’s life and immigration to the United States.

In Esperanza Rising, we are taken on a journey of loss. Quickly into the story, the reader learns Esperanza’s loving and wealthy rancher father is killed at the hands of bandits. Esperanza, her mother, and their servants who are like family must move. This is due their beautiful Mexican ranch is burned down by Esperanza’s uncle. They leave behind her abuelita, whom she was very close with, in a convent. The death of her father, separation from her beloved grandmother, and a series of events causes Esperanza to grieve and grow so much within a year.

Pam Munoz Ryan weaves real history in her novel as detailed through the Mexican Revolution, the Dust Bowl, discrimination, immigration, Repatriation, migrant farms, the Great Depression, and labor strikes. During these major events, Esperanza must contend with losing all her material possessions, living extremely poorly, losing her father and possibly her mother, and growing up very quickly through the process. This novel is recommended for grades 4 and up.

If you are interested in teaching this novel, hop on over to our other blog post: 5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising.

Becoming Naomi Leon

Another treasure of Pam Munoz Ryan’s is Becoming Naomi Leon. When I read this novel, I immediately noticed similar details to Esperanza Rising, but Becoming Naomi Leon had more modern elements. Similarities include the Mexican landscape, heritage, and food, as well as a journey of the female protagonist finding herself while dealing with trauma. 

Publisher Synopsis:

Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has had a lot to contend with in her young life, her name for one. Then there are her clothes (sewn in polyester by Gram), her difficulty speaking up, and her status at school as “nobody special.” But according to Gram’s self-prophecies, most problems can be overcome with positive thinking. Luckily, Naomi also has her carving to strengthen her spirit. And life with Gram and her little brother, Owen, is happy and peaceful. That is, until their mother reappears for the first time in seven years, stirring up all sorts of questions and challenging Naomi to discover who she really is.

Naomi, her great-grandmother Gram, and her little brother Owen all live in a small trailer/RV. Naomi and Owen are happy and cared for, enjoying evenings with pork-chops and Wheel of Fortune. Their mother, an alcoholic who abandoned Naomi and Owen seven years prior, shows up suddenly wanting to be part of their lives. Naomi and Owen’s trauma resurfaces from the neglect they had faced under her care and with the threat of her mother, Skyla, taking only Naomi to go live with her and her new boyfriend in Las Vegas.

There are deep themes such as child neglect, abandonment, alcoholism, inter-generational living, and custody hearings, so please choose this book wisely for your students. Nevertheless, Ryan has a way of making these topics age-appropriate without too much detail and just the right amount of discretion and subtlety. The reader is taken on a journey of Gram fighting for her great-grandkids, Naomi finding her father and her voice to be used for justice and redemption. 

I was drawn into this book immediately. The quirky characters, the desert backdrop, the Mexican landscape and food, the Spanish language and the warmth of family and friends all draw the reader in. With Naomi’s soap carvings and the big woodcarving event in Mexico they attend in which Naomi finds her gifts, will excite younger readers. This book has heart and soul, uniqueness, and strong characters. 

Paint the Wind

Ryan’s novel Paint the Wind has similarities to Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon as well. The female protagonist, Maya, lives with her grandmother, but it is not a great situation. Her grandmother is an avid liar and has woven lies about Maya’s dead mother and her whole personal history. Maya, herself, tells lies in order to save face and impress. Through a series of events, Maya must move from California to Wyoming to live with her mother’s family, who are adamant against lying. They push her to find out the truth about who she really is and her mother’s horse helps her do this. Ryan has a knack for describing settings in her novels and the Wyoming wilderness is described beautifully, coupled with her description of the wild horse, Paint. 

Publisher’s Synopsis:

This epic horse story, in the tradition of BLACK STALLION, marks exciting new territory for one of our most treasured and celebrated novelists.

A puzzling photograph, a box filled with faded toy horses, and a single fractured memory are all that Maya has left of her mother. In her grandmother’s house, she lives like a captive, tethered by rules… until a shocking event changes everything. A world away, in the rugged Wyoming wilderness, a wild mustang called Artemisia runs free, belonging only to the stars. In a land where mountain lions pose an ever-present threat, she must vigilantly defend her foal… until a devastating act separates them from their band. Like a braided rein, Maya’s and Artemisia’s lives will ultimately intertwine. 

Paint the Wind left me gripping with emotion. As an adult, the story carried me through a roller coaster of sadness, grief, fear, and shock. You don’t have to be a horse person to enjoy this book. The book, Paint the Wind, has extensive vocabulary, exciting plot twists, so much heart, and the ever-present strong female lead that Ryan is known for.  

Author Study

Exposing students to a variety of authors is crucial for them to became diversified readers and writers, learning from many different writing styles and enjoying many genres of books; however, completely focusing on one writer and investigating author studies in the classroom has added benefits as well. Here are three ways to complete author studies in your classroom. 

Author Study

1. Read-Alouds

Completing a series of read-alouds from the same author opens the class up to great discussion on writing styles. They discuss comparing and contrasting, author’s craft, and so much more. Even by using book series as read-alouds, students can see similarities of how a particular author creates a story arc. The students can also see if it is similar or different from book to book within a series. Students will connect each novel naturally. They will make inferences about the author, and find consistency among different novels. 

For reasons to utilize a read-aloud in the Middle School Classroom, read our blog about it here!

2. Pair a Read-Aloud with a Novel Unit

As you teach a novel unit, simultaneously choose a read-aloud by the same author. I did this when we studied Mighty Miss Malone. I used Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel Bud, Not Buddy as our read-aloud at the same time. In fact, in Bud, Not Buddy, worlds collide when Deza from Mighty Miss Malone is featured. It was an awesome moment when students realized this. (I got bonus points for not revealing this meet-up until we came across it.) 

My students were able to compare and contrast Curtis’ books. They realized that Curtis loved to write about similar themes of poverty and real life history of the Great Depression. He also loved including riding the rails. Furthermore, he included many mentions of Michigan and similar places between both novels, and even humor. Curtis has a way of executing humor beautifully in normally sad topics. My students made so many connections as we studied both of his books. 

Students will be able to learn so much as they study two novels by the same author simultaneously. 

3. Independent Reading Projects

As a middle school English teacher, I assigned one independent reading project per quarter. One particular student had a penchant for reading Gary Paulsen books. So for each independent reading project he completed, he read a different Gary Paulsen book. For the last independent reading project, he compared and contrasted all four books he had read by him that year. He made deep connections throughout the novels, inferences about Paulsen’s personality, and formed a deep attachment to this author’s books.

By forming a deep bond with an author, this student developed a love of reading. He also could easily recognize the specific author’s craft. By reading an author’s work in a variety of books, students are able to learn and recognize different writing styles. Thus, in turn, become amazing writers too.  

As a teacher, you can assign an Independent Reading Project. Students will read two books by the same author, any writer of their choosing, and form connections between the two.

Here is a FREE project that does just that:  Author Study Independent Reading Project. 

If you’re interested in exploring Gary Paulsen projects for the classroom, take a look at our resource here.

Conclusion

Pam Munoz Ryan is an author you must add to your bookshelves if you have not done so. Her books are enthralling, contain profound life lessons and deep themes, and are always hopeful. By completing an author study in the classroom, students gain the benefit of learning a particular author’s writing style. They also form deep connections between books and attachments to an author. Consider using Pam Munoz Ryan as an author study in your classroom to begin!

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