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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Top Three New(ish) Picture Books for Boys

One of the great challenges of teaching primary aged students is hooking the boys.  And by hooking I mean spearing them intellectually and propelling them from the realm of playing with their shoes during group discussions to up on their knees excited to join in the conversation.  (If my metaphor is a bit, er, violent, just remember:  boys dig that.)  I want them all in.  Engaged.  Fascinated.  Motivated.  This is no small feat.  And it is absolutely my favorite thing about teaching.  Because once I have them, that's when our room really gets interesting. 

Books are excellent bait.  Here are three picture books and why they work so well with boys. 

1.  OH No! (Or How my Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett

This hilarious story of a fifth grade science project with a few design flaws has the irreverent humor that draws boys close to the teacher's chair.  Who wouldn't be interested in a kid-built robot that bursts out of the school gymnasium and wreaks havoc on an entire city?  And of course the best way to deal with a wayward robot is to create a giant, mechanical toad to take him down.  Boys get it. 

The pictures in this book remind me of a graphic novel super-sized.  Boys love to be able to pore over page after page, finding new details they missed the first five times through.  It's like a treasure hunt just for them. 

The illustrative detail in this book also appeals to those boys who want to know how things work.  The endpapers have blueprints of the two robots.  Underneath the jacket, the cover of the book is designed to look like a child's worn composition notebook.  The inside of the jacket cover is a movie poster of the story.  This book works for those hard to hook boys because Mac Barnett and illustrator Dan Santat so clearly care about the same kind of details that seven year old boys devour (and revisit and share and imitate). 

2.  Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

This book is imaginative play come to life.  Told from the point of view of Robot Zot, the book follows his adventures--and by extension the adventures of the invisible child behind him--from outer space to Earth.  David Shannon's illustrations mix the fantastical perspective of Robot Zot and the home details (with a twist) that inspire the action.  This book captures (and validates) the way kids (especially boys) escape into their own minds and entertain themselves. 

I used this book during a min-lesson on voice--because throughout the book Robot Zot sounds the way a robot would sound.  "No one stop Robot Zot.  Robot Zot crush lot!"  After reading this book, an explosion of Robot Zot stories followed.  We had a whole series going!  I even had kids exploring the voices of other toys in their writing.  If a robot sounds that way, how would my teddy bear talk?  What would my doll sound like?  I had kids collaborating:  "I'll write the second book, and here's what will happen.  Then in the third book. . . ."  The boys could not have been more motivated to write. 

3.  Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

You know you're on the right track when a book title brings a particular student to mind.  I won't use his name--but he knows who he is, and this book went directly from the bookstore bag into his immediate possession.  In my class he is the kid who knows every obscure animal fact there is to know.  He inhales non-fiction, and his curiosity for everything strange and surprising never ends. 

Never Smile at a Monkey warns the eager boy reader about 17 rare and specific dangers of the natural world.  Who knew there was anything to fear about a platypus, cone shell, or caterpillar?  Venom and weapons and biting, oh my!  Reading this one picture book provides weeks of material for astounding parents, teachers, and friends.  (And believe me, the shock and awe factor is motivating.) 

Another thing Steve Jenkins does so well in all his books, (and I have them all in my classroom), is he organizes information in such an appealing way for boys.  He uses headings, text size and shape, captions, and pictures in creative ways that work for kids who naturally jump around and read based on interest and not necessarily sequentially. 

And the Secret is. . .

The trick to hooking the boys is communicating that you understand what is important to them and that you appreciate and value their boy-ness.  There is a place in the classroom for their inventiveness, their humor, and their creative thinking.  My job is easier when there are so many authors who get it, too. 

What are some of your favorite picture books for boys?