Illustrated children’s books have so much to offer. Bold, bright, full of imagination and color, they can help you introduce new units, provide mentor texts for elements of writer’s craft, approach your essential questions in new ways, and make your students smile. Next week I’ll be bringing you an interview on the podcast with Pernille Ripp about so much of this. This week, let’s take a deep dive into one way to get students started writing children’s books of their own.
This project, which you can do with any novel, short story, or even poem, invites students to take the text that you’re studying and reimagine it as a children’s book.
There are so many ways to do this.
They can try to tell a pared-down version of the whole story in a way that children would find appealing.
They can narrow in on a character and theme and bring a corner of the text to life in a new way.
They can come up with a lesson or takeaway from the book that children might want to learn and have the characters teach it.
No matter how they reboot your class text, they’ll need to think deeply about writer’s craft, the role of visuals, and the essentials of the text you’ve just read. So let’s talk about what that might look like in class. (By the way, you can sign up for the free complete curriculum for this project at the end of the post!).
Start at the Library
This project is a great excuse for a visit to the children’s shelves at your local public library. Take your card and maybe your kid’s or your partner’s or your friend’s too (with permission of course), so you can check out a trunk full of books. Talk to the children’s librarian. Ask for books with great main characters, unique visuals, award-winning approaches to important themes, etc.
These books will become your mentor texts. Some you can share aloud with students and talk about what the author and illustrator have done. Others you can stand up on every available surface in your room and let your students explore as they imagine possible written and visual options for their stories.
Introduce the Project
Once you’ve got your mentor texts ready to go, and you’re nearing the end of the text you’d like students to create from, you can introduce the project and let students start to think about the possibilities. As they come up with general ideas for their stories, now is a great time to start sharing books you’ve brought in, with a focus on different aspects that students can be inspired by.
Maybe one day you talk about characterization, sharing a read-aloud with a unique, vivid character and then letting students explore other texts from your mentor library and start brainstorming details about and even descriptions of their own main character.
Maybe one day you talk about story pacing, sharing two read-alouds with very different types of story progressions, and then letting students storyboard ideas for how to move through their own stories.
Maybe another day you talk about the role of visuals in children’s books, showing students different types of visuals and discussing their affect on the reader, then letting them explore a gallery of pages you’ve laid open around the room. You might follow this up by having students create a vision board for how they might use visuals to tell the story in their own book. They could sketch or draw, collage, or use a digital design tool like Canva to lay out their visual concepts.
Work on the Books
Now that students have been thinking about their stories and building up components for a while, you’ve hopefully created that magical environment Brown Professor Eileen Landay called “thick air,” in our interview about integrating the arts and ELA back in episode 77.
I love this idea, of building a rich layered environment where kids are ready to create. As Landay and her co-author, Kurt Wooton, put it in their book, A Reason to Read, “We must be much more creative in our teaching, because for students to create interesting work, they must be inspired. It is our job to light that initial spark by creating thick air through the range of materials, texts, and ideas we bring to the classroom environment” (123).
Before students design that very first page, think about how you will showcase the books at the end. Will you eventually create a digital gallery you can share with your local library? Will you plan to have every student print a book and do a read aloud at a local elementary school? Will every student choose and print their favorite page for a display that runs through the main hallway of your school? Let students know up front what format their books will eventually be presented in, but then give them the opportunity to create and design as they wish. Maybe they’ll paint their own pages (like in The Quiltmaker’s Gift), create collages (like in Jabari Jumps and Joseph had a Little Overcoat), draw fun cartoons (like in Mo Willems’ books) or use digital illustration with Canva, Photoshop, or even Google Slides.
For kids who aren’t inclined to design on paper, Canva is a wonderful free tool for digital design. In the video below, I’ll walk your students who are interested in this option through the four most helpful design moves on Canva – in my opinion of course – when designing a children’s book page.
Model and Confer
I’ve been diving deep into Penny Kittle’s work lately (she’ll be a guest on the podcast in April!), and I’ve learned a lot from her about the power of modeling and conferring. As your students workshop their books, you’d do well to spend you time doing a little bit of modeling of how you might go about the project yourself, and mainly conferring with your students to help them with their writing.
If you do choose to do some modeling, consider projecting or displaying a page or two that you are creating and inviting attention as you walk students through the choices you’re making.
For example, I created this two page spread to introduce my main characters for an underwater version of Romeo & Juliet. I wanted to keep things simple at first, introducing the main characters and letting children notice how the ocean looks different for each turtle and wonder why.
During these workshop days, you can also invite students to share their work along the way. In partners or as a whole class, spend a little time for students to share the pages they’re working on and what they feel is working well. When you see a student doing something AMAZING, shout them out (with permission) and let everyone else see too. Perhaps you might print finished pages or snap photos of them for a growing display of what’s working.
Keep those mentor texts handy, so students can always be grabbing them for inspiration.
Keep it Up
Now it’s just rinse and repeat for as long as you want to devote to the project. As your students finish up, you might do peer editing and/or you might ask your students to find a kid in their lives they can read the book to and get a reaction from before their final edits. Tell them they should not just ask the child if they like the book, but have some specific questions ready, like…
Did you find any parts of the book confusing?
Did you feel like the illustrations fit together well with the story?
Was there anything you wanted to know more about?
Do you have any questions about the main character?
Showcase the Final Work
As your students finish their books, it’s time to showcase them in whatever manner you’ve chosen. They definitely shouldn’t just sit in a pile waiting to be graded! This is the perfect time for a truly authentic audience.
Pair the final project with a reflection explaining how the book captures essential qualities of the original text you studied in class.
I hope you and your students will try this project, and love it!
Get the Complete Project!
Feeling like you want to try this, but don’t have time to create the project guidelines? I’ll be sending these out to all the teachers I work with this very Friday, but if you’re not on that list yet, you can join below and this project will be the very first thing you get from me. Then you can expect regular emails on Fridays chock full of my very best teaching ideas for your creative classroom.