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Picture books & issues

Picture books are a wonderful resource to explain or begin discussions about difficult subjects. Last week’s post was about the personal experience my family had with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) that lead to the book, Mr. Worry: A story about OCD.  In writing, Mr. Worry, I hoped it would be a resource for families and schools. It is rewarding when I hear from a family and they tell me that upon reading the book, their child was relieved to know they were not the only one or that they read the book to a classroom and their child’s peers are now more understanding.

I cant stopI hear similar stories about I Can’t Stop: A story about Tourette Syndrome.  Tourette syndrome is another disorder that is not well understood and often, poorly portrayed in the media. Children with Tourette Syndrome are not intentionally making sounds or movements. When I talk with students about Tourette’s, I ask them if they’ve ever had a mosquito bite. Of course, all the hands go up! Mosquito bites itch. I ask them what happens when they try NOT to scratch it? That’s right, eventually you have to scratch it. That is Tourette’s. Just because a child doesn’t always have tics, doesn’t mean they are doing them intentionally. They have to do them.

I received an email from a gentleman that had Tourette Syndrome, but was not diagnosed until, as an adult, he read my picture book. He recognized himself in it and sought a diagnosis. He wonders how his life might have been if he’d had the help as a child.

At times children are frustrating to parents and teachers, but sometimes we need to step back, remove the emotions and look objectively for what might be the cause of their behavior. They deserve this because we are the adults and they were entrusted to our care.

Build a library of books that can be used to start discussion and build empathy for others. You’ll find many publisher’s lists include wonderful picture books about issues children may deal with. Here’s a link to the line of books at Albert Whitman-Issues .

Tourette Association of America

Anxiety and OCD

51V6yadXJ-L._SX400_BO1,204,203,200_When I visit schools, students often ask me which of my published books is my favorite, I tell them that’s a bit like having to pick your favorite child. There are elements of all my books that make them special, but I also tell them the one closest to my heart is Mr. Worry: A Story about OCD. That is because my son has OCD. Before he was diagnosed he thought he was crazy because he knew his actions and thoughts made no sense, and we found his behavior heartbreaking and frustrating.

As the adults in children’s lives it is important we don’t just write off a child’s behavior as volitional, something they are doing on purpose. Our first response when the compulsions (rituals) began was to tell our son to “just stop”. But for a person with OCD that is impossible. They don’t want to do these things-they have to do them!  Children living with anxiety or OCD are not in control of their thoughts or actions. They need us to recognize this and seek the professional help they need, so that they can return to being a child.

We all have worries and it is common to hear people joke about someone having OCD, but most of us can’t imagine what it is like to truly have OCD.   My son, now a 31 year old, married, expectant father and PhD physicist wrote the following when he was applying to colleges. Before he was diagnosed he drove teachers crazy with questions, worries, difficulty adapting to changes, but none of it was his fault or intentional. I hope this essay gives you some perspective on OCD. Following are links to some helpful resources.

“Mind that does not stick” Zen Master Shoitsu

As I sit musing on the words on Zen Master Shoitsu, I find myself staring at the drawers under my bed and drifting back several years.

It is bedtime and as I walk into my room, my eyes stick on my desk chair, protruding maybe half an inch from the desk, and I worry that I might trip on it in the middle of the night.  As I fix the chair, I notice the papers on my desk are slanted and the picture of my grandparents is not situated just so.  I try to let it go, but my mind sticks on the slight disorder, compelling me to straighten my desk.  I move around the room, adjusting my watch, moving a pencil, aligning a book, and making sure the closet is not only closed, but air tight.  I turn off the light and as I drift off to sleep, my mind sticks.  I heard a report on the news about a rare blood disease, and I can’t help but wonder if I have it unknowingly and am slowly dying.  I swear to myself that I will investigate in the morning, but my mind sticks again.  I used a sky blue colored pencil instead of a blue one on the map in class, maybe I’ll fail the assignment, then I’ll fail the grade, and then I’ll never get into college.  I manage to calm myself down but then my mind sticks yet again.  I get the sense that there is a bright light coming from under my bed.  I try to dismiss the notion as absurd since there are drawers under my bed and no space for a light.  But my mind begins to “sweat,” refusing to unstick and drift off to sleep.  I try to calm myself, but my mind works like quicksand, pulling me in deeper the more I fight it.  Finally, I get out of bed and confirm that there is no light.  I instantly calm down and my mind relaxes until I get back into bed and it sticks on the light again.  This cycle of searching for a light repeats for ten or fifteen minutes before I unstick it for good and manage to drift into a peaceful sleep.  This was my struggle every night as I unknowingly battled obsessive compulsive disorder and a mind that sticks.

While my mind sticks because of a chemical imbalance, causing me to obsess about absurd things, there are many other ways in which a mind can stick.  In life some people are so set in their political philosophy that their mind is stuck in a certain gear, unyielding to new information and other philosophies.  In school, students can get so set on one approach to solving a problem that they overlook other solutions, and sometimes miss the simple, obvious answer.  In writing, particularly of certain college application essays, people can stick on one idea or approach to the essay, often leading to a one dimensional paper.  In social interactions, people can develop certain impressions and stereotypes that stick with them; regardless of any experiences they might have that contradict their view. 

While there are many situations where a sticking mind can be detrimental, it can have positive effects on some situations.  One of Albert Einstein’s greatest gifts was his ability to focus completely on one task, shutting out all else.  Some degree of OCD actually benefits me because it compels me to observe small details that are often key to understanding a problem or completing an assignment.  My OCD tendencies have positive effects when they are under control, but when I let my worries go unchecked I lose control of my life and become stuck in a pit with no escape.  I believe the key to dealing with it is to recognize the tendency to fall into quicksand and find a way to build a bridge over it.  In my case I used counseling and medication to regain balance in my mind.  Now that I am on the lookout for potential sticky spots, I can steer clear of tough situations and try to use my OCD to my advantage. 

Many forms of a sticky mind can be beneficial if people know how to turn their weaknesses into strengths.  It is good for people to have firm opinions and not go through life indecisively as long as they keep their minds open to new possibilities.  It is wise for children to be weary of shifty strangers as long as they learn not to stereotype all people. 

Master Shoitsu never stated whether a sticky mind was good or bad, he merely acknowledged the possibility of sticky spots in the road.  Now when I walk into my room at night I crawl straight into bed without worrying about a stray paper or a misplaced piece of furniture because I have learned to build bridges over the quicksand patches in my mind and tread carefully over the soft spots. 

(2005 Essay for undergrad application to University of Chicago)

OCD Foundation


Picture a Classroom of Word Collectors

0806181636_HDRI like to encourage students to be word collectors. Words are easy to collect from everyday conversations, music, TV shows, books, magazines, comics or any place language is seen or heard. When you become intentional about collecting words vocabulary grows. While a large vocabulary helps a student’s writing, it also helps their ability to express themselves in conversation. Being able to communicate effectively increases self-confidence.

One of the things I love about picture books is that rich vocabulary and more complex sentence structure can be used because the book is usually read to the child. The person reading the book can explain words or nuances that the child does not understand. This helps a child’s vocabulary and their use and understanding of language grow.

All students, even older ones, can benefit from reading picture books. Send them on a quest to fill a journal with words collected from various sources, including picture books. Challenge them to:

  • look up words they don’t know
  • use words from their journal in their writing
  • share a favorite word with the class
  • Write a word from each student on the board-How many can be used in one silly sentence?

The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds (Orchard Books, 2018) would be a wonderful book to use to introduce this idea. In the book Jerome collects words instead of the normal things people collect.  He collects words he sees, hears and reads. One day, as he carries a pile of scrapbooks filled with words, he stumbles and words come flying out. He sees new combinations of words. He strings them together to make poems and songs. To communicate with others he uses his simple powerful words such as: I understand, I’m sorry, thank you and you matter. One day he releases his collection and is happy as he watches other children start collecting them.

Collecting words isn’t just for students. Start your own list. I find I read more carefully, listen more intently when I’m on the quest to find new and interesting words!




Reading Aloud & Language Development

Children are designed to listen to language. By listening they learn to talk.

Never to old for a picture book!

I have fond memories of being read to as a child and of reading to my children. There is a warmth in that shared experience that I can still feel. That alone is reason enough to read aloud with children, but language development is an equally important reason.

Children are designed to listen to language. By listening they learn to talk. This listening begins in the womb. A 1980 study by DeCasper and Fifer showed that babies were listening in the womb.  In the study, mothers-to-be read aloud a story every day during the last six weeks of pregnancy. Some read The Cat in the Hat and others read The King, the Mice and the Cheese. Two days after birth, the infants were tested to see whether they found the story that they’d heard in the womb more soothing than the other story. They did. The infants who had heard The Cat in the Hat preferred it to The King, and vice versa—even when the story was read by someone other than their mother.

After the womb, reading aloud continues to be a wonderful way to enhance language development and enrich vocabularies. There have been numerous studies in recent years showing the positive effect reading aloud has on development of a child’s cognitive skills, language, attention span and memory.  These studies have shown differences in academic performance and vocabularies, but a recent study also showed differences in the actual brain activity of children living in a literacy friendly environment. It showed that the more you read to a child the more you help neurons grow in areas of the brain involved in understanding words, concepts and memory.

Books contain a richer vocabulary and more varied sentence structure than children encounter in spoken language. So reading aloud lets children hear new words in new contexts. Picture books provide additional visual cues that help a child move new words from working memory to storage where they can retrieve it to use themselves.

So reading aloud helps with brain development, but it also promotes bonding and provides enjoyment.  According to Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain.  You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

Trelease also urges parents and teachers to continue to read aloud even after children can read to themselves as this promotes reading for pleasure, which can be the difference in a child becoming a life time reader, not just a school reader.

So turn off those screens, pick up a good book and turn your children on to reading. Their brain and their future self will thank you!


Last 2 writing picture books

Little Red Writing: Joan Holub, Melissa Sweet, Chronicle, 2013

0503181701a_HDRSynopsis: In pencil school, Ms. 2 tells her students to write a story. They are excited and some want to write about what they know (the basketball writes about sports). Little Red wants to write about bravery because red is the color of courage. She decides a brave pencil would journey through the school, fight evil, and save the day. Little Red travels down the story path with a basket of red nouns looking for the kind of tale that will allow her to display bravery and fight evil. As she journeys around the school, she encounters action words at the gym, descriptive words at the library, etc., until she comes across a long tangly tail that is up to no good. Brave Little Red follows it into Principal Granny’s office where she comes upon the Wolf 3000, “the grumpiest, growliest, grindingest pencil sharpener ever made. She arrives just in time to foil the electrical teeth of the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener before rescuing the shorter-than-before principal and returning to class to tell her tale.

I like that:

  • It’s funny
  • It uses illustrations, speech bubbles, textures in interesting ways
  • It is a retelling of a story a new way
  • It has a rich vocabulary

*It may be a bit busy for some students


What do Authors and Illustrators Do? : Eileen Christelow, Houghton Mifflin, 2013

0503181706_HDRSynopsis:  Picture books use words AND pictures to tell the story. This book explores both aspects. In What Do Authors Do? Christelow shows how an idea blossoms into a final book in colorful watercolors and comic book-style frames. In What Do Illustrators Do?, two artists create their own versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, from rough sketch to finished artwork.

I like that:

  • The illustrations are comic book like, with a narrator talking about the writing process
  • It shows two different author styles and how same idea leads to a chapter book and a picture book
  • It shows research, writing, rewriting, discarding drafts, critique group
  • It shows it’s a long process, involving rejection letters and then reworking story
  • It shows that, even once there’s a contract, there is more work to be done
  • It shows others involved in making a book: editors, book designer
  • It shows printing process
  • It shows what happens after the book is done, reviews (good and bad), talks at schools and libraries
  • It shows how two illustrators take same story, but change it with their illustrations
  • It shows dummies, different type face and styles of illustrations
  • There is a section about computer drawing

That’s the last 2 picture books about writing for now. Any readers out there with other suggestions to share?

School has begun or is just around the corner for most. Next post I’ll take a look at the importance of reading aloud to students of all ages!

The next 3 writing picture books

The Plot Chickens: Mary Jan and Herm Auch, Holiday House, 2009

0503181702_HDRSynopsis: Henrietta chicken reads and get books from the library. She says reading is so much fun writing must be eggshilarating. Other hens help her as she follows the Rules, with hilarious suggestions and some built-in definitions. When it’s done she submits and it’s rejected so she makes the book herself and takes it to the librarian. The librarian suggests she get it reviewed, but a bad review from the Corn Book hurts her feelings. She is embarrassed to go to the library, but the children love her book and they know it by heart! Funny!

I like that:

  • It has fun word play
  • There are fun puns and things in illustrations: Writing Rules book is written by Reed Moore
  • Her rules show the main things in a story:  character, plot (which needs a problem), develop plot by asking what if, write what you know, build suspense, make your story come alive using all five senses, the main character must solve his or her story.
  • It shows revision and cover letter, rejection and perseverance.
  • It shows she didn’t brood over her rejection.
  • It shows how books use 4 colors to make all colors
  • It shows that while some might not like your story, others will


Ralph Tells a Story: Abby Hanlon, Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012

0503181659_HDRSynopsis: Ralph has a teacher that says stories are everywhere. Ralph’s classmates seem to find them, but each day at writing time, Ralph cannot write one. So he procrastinates! What writer hasn’t? He tells a friend that nothing happens to him, but she says she’s written lots of stories about him. She shows him. So he looks some more for stories. He closes his eyes and imagines…an inchworm at the park. But when he tries to write about it, he can’t. When Ralph has to share his story, he starts to tell about the inchworm and students ask him questions and suddenly he does have a story. Now he writes stories all the time!

I like that:

  • It’s in first person
  • It shows the possibility of finding stories in everyday things
  • It shows that writers need time to think
  • It shows writer’s block
  • It shows how questions help you write the story
  • Ralph has writing tips at the end
  • The end papers; front ones show blank worksheets and back show all the books he’s written


Rocket Writes a Story: Tad Hills, Schwartz & Wade books, 2012

0503181701b_HDRSynopsis: Rocket (a dog) loves to read or be read to by his teacher, the little yellow bird. Rocket loves words too. He sniffs them out with his nose. When he finds words he writes them down and hangs them on a word tree. Once the tree is covered with words Rocket decides to write a story.  But when he tries, no story comes. His teacher suggests writing about something he’s seen, or that happened to him or that inspires him. So he sniffs for inspiration and makes friends with an owl. He works on his story about the owl for days, editing, drawing pictures, thinking. Slowly the owl, who was at first afraid, comes closer as Rocket reads her parts of his story and they finish it together.

I like that:

  • That there is a story of friendship woven into a story about writing (or vice versa!)
  • It shows that writing is work too
  • It shows the importance of collecting words
  • It shows the importance of reading
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