Throughout March, I am taking part in ReFoReMo or Read for Research Month. In this picture book writing challenge, you read a wide variety of books and then read blog posts by various authors on how to use the mentor texts to improve your work.
One of the books for last week was Jacob Grant’s Cat Knit. Personally, as a knitter, I was immediately hooked. That said, I do suspect that Grant has been the recipient of an unwanted sweater or three. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the story of Cat and his friendship with Girl. One day, Girl brings home a colorful new friend, Yarn. Cat quickly bonds with Yarn and their friendship grows. But then the unthinkable happens. Yarn becomes a snug, itchy sweater. Cat abandons his friend outside and only then notices just how awfully cold it is. Fortunately, Cat and Yarn are reunited although one suspects that there might be more knitting to come.
On the surface, it all looks pretty simple. You have a story about a cat, a girl and yarn. It is a book about knitting. And that’s true enough but if you go a bit deeper and you’ll find the theme.
Cat Knit is also a book about friendship and change. One friend changes and the other friend is initially resistant and just can’t deal with it. Fortunately, before it is too late, Cat realizes that “Warming up to something new takes time.”
Except for that last bit in parenthesis, Grant doesn’t say it. He implies it. He writes about it. He hides it in a story about a cat, a girl and yarn. Because he makes this part of the lesson covert, it is one of the themes of the book and teaches without preaching.
Don’t preach. We hear that bit of advice all the time. Fortunately we have Cat Knit and Jacob Grant to show us how to do it right.
How do you give your readers a powerful message without preaching? You tell them a story with the message at it’s heart and there are authors on my latest reading list that did an astonishing job at this.
In The Sandwich Swap (Disney/Hyperion), Queen Rania al Abdullah and Kelly DiPucchio tell a story about prejudice without ever using that word. Instead, the present the reader with a story about two girls who are best school friends until preconceptions about food get in the way.
Christine Ieronimo tells about one girl’s adoption and how a lack of fresh water in her home village led to the need. The title, A Thirst for Home (Walker), made me think that the book would be about wells and fresh water and social justice. It was all there but it was lurking in the background.
The New Girl and Me (Richard Jackson Book/Atheneum) by Jacqui Robbins is a story all about bullying but, like The Sandwich Swap, that all important word is never uttered. Not once. But the story still shows how one kind word can turn a bad situation around.
There is nothing wrong with telling a story that includes a strong message. Young readers need these messages. What they don’t need is to be preached at or talked down to and you can avoid it by simply telling the story. Give them characters to care about, kids much like themselves who are struggling to make the right choices. And then let them draw the conclusions for themselves. You’ll be amazed at how often they get there with just a little subtle help from you. No neon lights required.
I’m sure there was more to my April and May reading than this but this is all I recorded. In part, that is because I was reading for my work-for-hire project, lots and lots on the Maya. Many of these books, I only read in part because they were adult and academic. If I don’t read the whole book, I don’t add it to the list. Anyway, here’s what I have.
- Admirand, C.H. One Day in Apple Grove (Sourcebooks)
- al Abdullah, Queen Rania with Kelly DiPucchio, The Sandwich Swap (Disney/Hyperion)
- Barnett, Mac. Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem (Disney/Hyperion)
- Barr, Nevada. A Superior Death (An Anna Pigeon Mystery)
- Berger, Lee. R. and Marc Aronson. The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, A Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins (National Geographic Press)
- Daly, Cathleen, Prudence Wants a Pet (A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Book Press)
- Daywalt, Drew, The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel Books)
- Haber, Tiffany Strelitz. The Monster Who Lost His Mean (Henry Holt and Company)
- Harrison, Hannah. Extraordinary Jane (Dial)
- Ieronimo, Christine. A Thirst for Home (Walker)
- Levchuck, Caroline M. Kids During the Time of the Maya (PowerKids Press)
- Newman, Leslea. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick Press)
- Omololu, C.J. Dirty Little Secrets (Walker)
- Polacco, Patricia. Clara and Davie (Scholastic Press)
- Robbins, Jacqui. The New Girl and Me (Richard Jackson Book/Atheneum)
- Rusch, Elizabeth. A Day with No Crayons (Rising Moon)
- Warren, Susan May. It Had to Be You (Tyndale House)
- Webb, Wendy. The Vanishing (Hyperion)