Tag Archives: art

Looking at Four 2016 Children’s Books

This post is written by member Evelyn Begody. 

Cats drawn by Evelyn Begody

Writing for Children, the Middlebury College course taught by Sam Swope and Michele Stepto, has changed my personal reading. Now I find myself at the local Gallup, New Mexico children’s library or in one of the other nearby libraries, hunting new releases or literature featuring children of color. Mainly I’m looking for great books. When I find a book I like, I reread it. Sometimes I find willing audiences, usually my daughters, or I retell the stories to my friends and students. In all instances, I love to give away details that tickled me. FaceTime is very useful in these readings and retellings.

thewhitecatandthemonkChildren’s books have come a long way. Groundwood Books recently released The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem “Pangur Ban” by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Sydney Smith. Before the text begins, five gorgeous pages feature the Pangur Ban patrolling and exploring its setting. The monochromatic spliced pictures, set in comic book sections, mesmerize and haunt. Color is used judiciously. One illustration is the monastery text art that features images of the Pangur Ban hunting and killing. Placed right in the middle of the book, it adds shock value, but does not take away from the simplicity of the art. Clean shapes and color trick me because when I try to copy the shapes and lines in my notebook, I find that they are not as easy as I thought. Therein is the trick: the illustrations have an innocence that misleads. A long time ago, my brother and I used to return from the Phoenix Public Library, I with books and my brother with a painting that we strapped to his back as we bicycled home. I observed the constant study he took once he hung his borrowed painting on the wall. I can’t say that I have my brother’s eye, but I definitely think of him when I return to the illustrations of this newly released book that jars, haunts, and captures the essence of the aloneness of personal study.

themouseandthemoonAnother haunting read is The Mouse and the Moon, written and illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo and published by Henry Holt. Imagine a person deciding that she loves someone, so she searches for this love, but in the process discovers another love interest. It sounds like a romantic comedy, but this basic story also alludes to crossing the race barrier because the friendship is between a mouse and a fish. The art is simple, but unlike the even, precise lines that Sidney Smith uses in The White Cat and the Monk, Alborozo’s pen-and-ink lines vary. He also includes watercolor that has been digitally mastered (art technology has come a long way). In monochromatic style, the first pages feature a faint yellow blessed moon that the brown mouse gazes on as it’s perched on the root of a fallen tree deep, deep in the forest. It’s another lonely setting and story beginning. I love when the Mouse mistakes the voice of the Fish for the Moon; that marks an important discovery. So dear. So sweet. And the beginning of a real friendship, like literally walking through the stacks in a library and lifting your hand to guide your attention when a title jumps out at you and you pull it out and walk to the nearest seat to open and read. Treasuring moments of discovery. That’s this story. This is the ache that we sometimes have that we store in the deepest recess of our psyche. I might be overanalyzing, but this is one of those special books because it’s not funny but sad.

awell-manneredyoungwolfMy next recent find is by Jean Leroy: A Well-Mannered Young Wolf. Leroy and Matthieu Maudet have teamed up before, but Maudet’s note on the dedication page—“Thank you to Jean L., an author with manners”—predicts the humor. Translated from French, this story works because it’s real, kind but edgy. So what does a well-mannered young wolf do before he eats his prey? Asks and honors the prey’s final wish, of course. Because none of the prey the young wolf catches want to die, they escape by lying. Leroy did not write about a smart young wolf but one who is honorable and has a shelf full of books and plays a violin. One of my favorite lines is, “Liars!” Think of the times we have all uttered this out of frustration, feeling disappointed with the world. This is a real story that captures our lives. The last page demonstrates how people can embrace art or generosity while being unaware of others’ struggles. As the last prey of the young wolf turns to hang an art work, right behind his back are his two dishonest friends who tricked the young wolf. This reminds me that just a few miles from Disneyland or a Cancun resort live people who struggle in poverty. Or that thanks to the ones who collect our favorite tea leaves or coffee beans faraway, we enjoy our exotic brewed drinks. This complex story invites thought. Everyone I have shared this story with has laughed at the lines and the repetitive artistic language of the young wolf striving to honor the prey’s last wish. This fun story definitely has lasting qualities.

thunderboyjrI am always searching for Native stories. Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy, Jr. is dear and quite popular. One  new and unique story is Canadian Native Tomson Highway’s Dragonfly Kites Pimithaagansa, published this year by Fifth House. In case, you can’t say or recognize the last word, it’s Cree for ‘dragonfly kites.’ How cool is that? I now want to find a Cree reader who can read these sections to me. I want to hear what the language sounds like. Supported by the Canadian Ontarian Arts Council, this book plays a critical role in language preservation and cultural and Native support and portrayal, but it also demonstrates the creative but humble play of two Native boys. Many of us collected fireflies in glass jars but probably very few felt the isolated pain of being roughly handled in the pursuit of play. The story does take readers to the great summery outdoors with meadows, animals, and wonderful freedom. Artist Julie Flett features nondescript faces of the Cree boys, but the wings of the dragonflies are delicate, translucent, and seen in super detail, making the boys’ play delicate on fragile creatures. I am partial to these publications because so few books are circulated about Natives in a contemporary setting. Many books about Natives are set back with the buffaloes ranging on the prairie and Natives living in teepees, in tune with Nature. Those are fine romantic tales, but many Natives may not identify with that stereotype, and we know that as long as we encourage such stereotypes, none of the Native peoples’ current struggles can be addressed. Maybe, and this makes me afraid sometimes, publishers do not want to address our issues because of the overwhelming sadness.

Maybe someone should write an edgy children’s story with great monochromatic illustrations about a mouse who cannot visit her friend Fish because of a pipeline that divides them.

Evelyn Begody, in her 22nd year of teaching high school English on the Navajo Nation, devotes much time to reading and writing. She loves hiking, Greek salads, her four children, her husband, and readingbut not in that order, of course.


Advocating for Change through Artistic Expression

The following guest post is by author Sharon Draper. Draper will be the keynote speaker for the Children’s Book Awards Luncheon and one of our featured speakers on the Authors as Advocates panel at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention.

SharonDraperThose who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.  I’m paraphrasing here, but the knowledge of the past and the words written to preserve that knowledge are waiting in books. Fiction. Nonfiction. Drama. Poetry. Add to that art and music and color and sound and rhythm and all the manifestations thereof, and we as humans survive and continue.

I remember a powerful short story that we read during a senior literature class I taught. I cannot recall the title, but it was about a music box—the last one in the world. The story took place after the final apocalypse, and basic human survival was a daily life-and-death struggle. And what was the most prized possession of the world in which everything had been destroyed? That music box. It was the only item left on the face of the earth that carried music and art and beauty. Wars were fought—not for food, but for that one piece of beauty. So I asked my students—do we need artistic expression to be fully human? Most of them decided that yes, we do.

What I do through my artistic expression is miniscule, compared to the magnitude of all we need to breathe and think. But I feel uplifted when I see a painting of a sunset that my heart recognizes. I feel satiated when I smell honeysuckle in the summer. I incorporate lots of sensory imagery in my writing—not because a writing professor told me to, but because that is how I inhale the world, how I process all the beauty of life.

Through writing, we have the opportunity to save humanity—one word at a time. I am so grateful to be part of the artistic process, to be one with the drummers and the singers and the photographers who capture a moment.

Reporters sometimes ask me, “Who is your audience?”

I reply, “People who read. People who think they don’t like to read. People who think and connect to others. People who are searching.”

“What do you hope readers take from your books?”

“Memories. Joys. Sorrows. Shared community. Characters. Story. Smiles. Tears. Vision. Hope.”

“So how do your stories promote change?”

“Often they do not. But when they do, this is what happens:

  • Kids read a book all the way through to the end.
  • They tuck [books] in their backpack and dig them out during math class when they are supposed to be doing subtraction.
  • They take [a book] home and share it with their mother.
  • They refuse to return the book, saying they lost it.
  • They identify with the characters in the story, saying that life mirrors their own.
  • They laugh. They cry. They get angry at characters.
  • They read a book many times.
  • They think about their life, their future, their possibilities.
  • They see dances. They hear echoes. They touch a symphony.”

This is a book in the hands of a child.

StellabyStarlightSharon M. Draper is the author of over 30 award-winning books, including Out of my Mind, which remains on the NYT bestseller list. She served as the National Teacher of the Year, has been honored at the White House six times, and was chosen to be a literary ambassador to the children of Africa as well as China.  Her newest novel, Stella by Starlight, won the 2016 NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children.  

Looking Back: Reflections of a First-Year Teacher

This is a guest post by Mellissa Frangias. 

MellissaFrangiasIt is the last day of school before summer, and there is a mixture of emotions floating through the hallways. The walls of the classroom are now bare and have been stripped of all student work. Goodbyes are never easy.

One of my students, a big-hearted teddy-bear 5th grader, cannot stop crying. At home, he takes care of his rather large family. He has told me that school is a place for him to take care of himself. It is a place to learn and not have to worry about feeding and babysitting his siblings while his mother is away at work. Over 80% of the students at the school where I work receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Roughly speaking, that translates to over 80% of the students living at or below the poverty level. Like him, many students see school as a place to be a kid—to grow up and become who they are.


I’ve been told that you will never forget your first group of students. In all, I had 28 extraordinary 5th– and 6th-grade students, such as the 5th-grade girl who excelled in everything she did, so that by the end of the year she joined the 6th-grade math class. Or the boy who at the start of the year hated school. I couldn’t get him to write more than a paragraph, but by the end of the year he could write 2–3 pages. More important, he overcame a huge transformation that his mother shared with me: he began to want to do well in school. There was also the 5th-grade teddy bear, who in previous years was told by his teachers to stick up for himself. This year, he not only stuck up for himself, but he made it onto student council and began advocating not only for himself but also for his peers. These students came from a variety of cultural, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds. Yet, by the end of the year, we grew alongside one another—celebrating one another’s strengths as well as weaknesses.

MelissaFrangiasArtWorkAs a teacher in my district, we hear all the time about the power of getting to know our students. The district’s motto had a huge impact on attracting me to the school: “Knowing every student by name, strength, and need.” As a first-year teacher, this was a wonderful motto to live by. I made it a priority to get to know ALL my students. Through this, I quickly began to realize the power and control that students had over their own learning. My strongest lessons were those that were unplanned and controlled by the students.

One of the most memorable moments of my first year came after my frustration with a particular student who would always disrupt class time by shouting out and interrupting his peers. Throughout the year, we bumped heads on numerous occasions. From day one, I knew he was a natural leader. His peers all looked up to him; right or wrong, they always followed his lead. Yet, he had a huge problem with authority and would always push the limits, especially outside of the classroom. One day in class, after multiple disruptions, I snapped, “You’re coming in here for lunch recess!” He sat back angrily. I knew the moment after I said it that I was feeding into his dislike of authority and teachers. I knew I had to fix this, but I also knew I needed to keep my foot down. This student excelled in math—how could I possibly use this to my advantage? As he walked in during lunch recess, I asked him to grab a calculator and to meet me by our daily schedule. Together, we calculated all the time that was lost in transitioning throughout the day. When we finally arrived at a number, we multiplied that to determine how much time was lost during a week, a month, and then a year. His jaw dropped to the floor, and he said to me, “And that doesn’t even count all the times you have to wait for us to settle down!” With a sigh of relief, I gave him the last five minutes of his recess. After recess, as I was waiting for the students to settle in to their desks, I noticed him staring at the clock to determine how much time it was taking. He walked up to my desk and asked, “Can I share with the class what we calculated during recess?” For the next 15 minutes, this student took control of the classroom. The rest of the class was engaged, listening to him speak, helping him to recalculate the numbers, and immersed in a powerful conversation about our learning time.

The reason I became a teacher is simple. The vignettes above highlight the reasons I became, and continue to want to be, a teacher. It’s not because of summer breaks, teaching state standards, or even sharing my love of school with my students. It is learning alongside my students, failing and picking myself back up, building community, and most of all, obtaining that feeling you get when you learn that you really can empower your students.

MelissaFrangiasStarryNightAs I look to the future, I know I will never forget my first group of students. But I am also excited for my journey next year. Although I will not be teaching a 5th-/6th-grade split, I have transferred over to the dual-language track, where I will be teaching math and literacy to approximately fifty 6th-grade students. In an effort to bring together the students from both the dual-language and general education tracks, we will be dedicating a segment of our Fridays to integrate both tracks with community-building activities, such as group art projects and traditions. One wish I have for the 2016–2017 school year is to establish a family night art exhibition and silent auction where students and families can celebrate art, culture, and community.

I was gratified by the speech given by one of my 5th-grade students on our last day of school:

“Thank you for your attention. The time has come where we will separate from one another. This year has been the best year yet, and I have many things I regret not doing. We had many arguments and tough times, but we got through it together. We are like a family, and it will never change. We started off as nomads and we ended as individual strong people. We did not just learn school-like subjects here, we learned emotions, friendship, and most of all, the meaning of family. Don’t be sad, be happy. This is just the beginning of a new journey. It’s a new journey, make a change. We will be forever remembered in each other.”

I’m looking forward to another fabulous year!


Mellissa Frangias is a 6th-grade teacher entering her second year of teaching at a school just outside of Seattle. Her background in photography and fine art allow her to bring her joy of art into the classroom.

My Time in DC with Big Tom

 This guest post (the second of two parts) is written by student Rahul Malayappan, a finalist in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize Contest. His teacher, Tom Porcelli, wrote the first part


I was rather perplexed one February morning to walk into Mr. Porcelli’s AP Language class and see the projected image of the Lincoln Memorial on the whiteboard in the front of the classroom. On the board was a list of deadlines: dates for a prewrite, rough draft, final edit, and so on. It was only when the video played that I realized what the task at hand was: Porcelli was making us write an essay for a contest run by The Atlantic magazine and the College Board, and the goal of the contest was to analyze a piece of art and its impact. I was never interested in deeply analyzing art, much less in criticizing it and less still in learning its history, and so I was initially unenthusiastic about the contest. But it was mandatory, and I figured that I might as well submit an essay to the contest if I had to do it for a grade.

An admirer of mathematics, I gravitated toward M.C. Escher as the artist of choice because of the geometric beauty of his works and the algebraic precision of his illusions. The piece I chose was Waterfall, which I found unique because of its dynamism; the flow of the water through the lithograph departed from the static nature of other Escher works. Yet I was still uninterested, and I trudged apathetically through the process, throwing together prewrites and drafts at the last moment. My heart was not in the paper—I took it in a direction in which I was forced to grasp at straws, and most of the paper was fluff without substance.

It was during the second stage of the peer revision process that I gave the paper to my friend Sarah for review. Her evaluation was scathing; she said that the paper made her want to go to sleep and that it sounded stilted and clunky. So I scrapped the paper in its entirety and started again from scratch. This time I changed my direction entirely, focusing pointedly and viscerally on the feelings that Waterfall inspired in me—feelings of discomfort and perplexity aroused by the illusory and enigmatic nature of the work. I eschewed a structured approach to the writing and proceeded haphazardly, stitching together fragments and sentences and paragraphs into a coherent essay. I managed to finish and submit the essay to Porcelli in the nick of time, and I was more satisfied with my final product. I opted to send my essay in for the competition as well, although I did not expect to win anything in a pool of entries numbering in the thousands, from across the world. In all honesty, I forgot about the competition shortly afterward.

It was during a late-night pre-world-championship robotics meeting, as I was mired in frustration at a persistent programming problem, that I heard the characteristically short buzz of an email come from my phone. I picked it up. Seeing the subject line ofThe Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize,” and at that point well acquainted with the unctuous language of college rejection letters, I half-expected a message that, as much as the judges thoroughly enjoyed reading my essay, they could not choose me as the winner. I was, naturally, surprised to learn that not only was I one of the competition’s three finalists, but I would have an opportunity to work with a senior editor from The Atlantic the following week. I jumped out of my seat and excitedly informed the people around me of what happened but promptly went back to programming. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have reason to celebrate unless I was named the sole victor of the contest.

I worked with the editor, Ms. Ann Hulbert, early the next week, and the experience was incredibly enlightening. She paid greater attention to minutiae than I ever have, from the very specifics of word choice to the construction of sentences. Yet she also managed to incorporate large-scale ideas, and, through all of this, kept my voice and original intent intact. I never realized beforehand how important revision was; to me, previously, it was simply a way of catching silly mistakes in punctuation and syntax. I submitted my paper again after returning from the VEX world championship, and hoped for the best.

I then received an email with even better news than before: all three finalists would be flown to Washington, DC, and would receive at least $2,500 in cash. Details trickled in—we would be staying at the wonderful St. Gregory hotel, seeing artwork at the National Gallery of Art and National Museum of Women in the Arts, and eating at the famous Old Ebbitt Grill. The itinerary was packed with engaging activities for the two days we were in DC.

The trip lived up to my expectations. The other finalists were friendly and personable, and the Atlantic and College Board staff were genial as well. In the morning, we got to tour the Atlantic offices and meet the faces behind the correspondence leading up to the event. We learned that the reason behind our visits to the museums was to see works from each of our respective artists; original Escher and Raphael drawings were housed in the National Gallery, while the National Museum of Women in the Arts had a Kahlo painting. As someone rather removed from the world of art, I found the experience of viewing art in museums to be rather fascinating, especially with the outside input of the guide. And we were always accommodated luxuriously, making the trip thoroughly enjoyable.

I learned before the awards ceremony that I was a semifinalist and not the winner. My involvement at the summit was little—I simply had to walk across the stage with Porcelli. Even though I didn’t win, the whole experience was marvelous, and it truly changed my view of the writing process. It taught me about how meticulous and fluid the writing process can be, subject to the radical changes and excisions of edits and revisions.

Rahul Malayappan is a senior and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut. He will be attending the University of California at Berkeley in the fall with interests in physics, computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics.

Second Place for the Win

This guest post is written by Tom Porcelli, whose student Rahul Malayappan was a finalist in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize. This is the first of two parts. 

TomPorcelliRahulphotoI didn’t really, in my heart, think for a second that any of them would win. When I saw that a kid from a private school in New Zealand won last year, I kinda figured that little urban Danbury High School wasn’t exactly tournament material. It didn’t matter. The kids believed that they had a chance, and some of them seemed actually excited to be writing something that had a very clear purpose, even if that was to win money. So, I did what I had done last year: I ran them through three weeks of process writing to a prompt I got online from some contest being put on by The Atlantic and the College Board.

I actually really liked this year’s prompt, as it had students explaining the rhetoric of a piece of art and delving beneath the canvas to explore why the student’s choice of art was so interesting or meaningful. While there was a list of “suggested” art pieces, I implored my young charges to “go out and find a piece of art that speaks to you.” Weeks later, I saw some had actually done as I asked.

We spent days peer conferencing their prewrites, their sloppy copies, their rough drafts, and their final copies. We gave feedback about content, focus, elaboration, rhetoric, language, and grammar. For some of them, it was probably the most work they had ever done on a paper in their young lives. Still, even after all that, only a handful of papers were of the ilk that I was willing to stamp my “AP teacher” signature on them and shuttle them off to the powers that be. Even as I emailed the final paper, I knew it was a fruitless endeavor, but I had promised them that if they worked hard enough, I’d back them up. I hit “send” and didn’t think about it again.

Over spring break I received an email from someone whom I did not know. The email was telling me that my writing was so wonderful, that I was a semifinalist. Of course, in today’s world of email blasts, I was honestly very close to clicking delete and getting back to my daydreams of fishing over the summer. Then, at the bottom of the email something made the little pieces in my mind work together, and I double-checked the greeting. There it was: the name Rahul. So it made sense that this wasn’t an email intended for me, and as I checked further, I realized I was right. This was cc’ed to me, but the real target was one of my students, Rahul Malayappan, who had written about M.C. Escher’s work Waterfall. 

Imagine that! One of my students was a semifinalist in an international writing competition. The news got better from there. As a semifinalist, Rahul ranked in the final three. As such, the least he would win would be a $2,500 cash prize. An email that followed a few days later made the news better still: The Atlantic and the College Board wanted to fly Rahul, one of his parents, and me to Washington, DC, for the awards ceremony.

The next few days were a bit of a whirlwind for both Rahul and me. In the days prior to the trip, we compared notes just about daily. OK, so we didn’t compare notes, but we did compare the content of the emails we were receiving from various agents of both companies. Rahul had the opportunity to connect with a real, live editor from The Atlantic. Of course, he had to slip this in somewhere between trying out for Jeopardy! and his international VEX competition.

Soon enough, we were away for the ceremony. Amid a flourish of meals and tours, Rahul was treated like a king for the day. He was asked to have his picture taken too many times to count, and I was lucky enough to sit in on a phone interview with our local paper. We comforted each other backstage before our “big moment,” which consisted of walking across the stage, grabbing two very nicely framed awards, shaking hands, and then smiling for a photo op. Backstage, we giggled at ourselves and planned what we would order on our last night of dining out on The Atlantic’s dime.

This was a special moment for us. Shortly after he confessed that he had never before looked at art, we found ourselves standing side-by-side in front of works by Degas, Rembrandt, and, of course, Escher. We conspired to determine who the first-place winner would be, while simultaneously assuring each other that $2,500 for writing a paper for English class was just fine. The fact that he came in second gave us little remorse; we were happy to be treated like kings for a day. I was proud to have one of my students decorated in such a way. It was a moment which I am sure will stay etched in both our memories.

Tom Porcelli has been teaching English at Danbury High School for the past twenty years. He brought the AP English Language course to the school six years ago and cherishes all the students who rise to that particular challenge. He lives in Woodbury, CT, with his wife, Erika and their son, J.