Rose Blanche

In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.

In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.

One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to.  So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud.  It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.
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Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.

What a potent and powerful story this is!  The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.

But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.

Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.

The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.

IMG_2743The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.

No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.

Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.

Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.

Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.

Compliments As Currency

For as long as I have can remember, people have told me that I am a good writer.  I have been advised to “get that published” more times than I can count. Right from my first original story written for a writing assignment in Grade Three, all the way through High School, into my professional role as a classroom teacher and now, in the golden glow of my retirement years, people have been very kind in their reactions to the words I write. Believe me, I am most appreciative of the positive feedback. If compliments were currency, you and I, Dear Reader, would be enjoying a wonderful meal at a fine restaurant, right now.

As I approached my retirement, one of the goals that I had set for myself was to give my writing a chance to grow into something more than social media posts and commentary. I wanted to rekindle my love of writing and of being creative. To do so meant devoting consistent periods of time each week to my craft. Being retired has been a wonderful tonic in that regard. The posts I have created for this blog have helped remind me of how it feels to be a writer. These posts have, also, caused me to have a more creative world view. Now, for example, when I am out for a stroll or mowing the lawn, my thoughts are not on the weeds in the grass but more, on how the shadows are being cast by the tree in my yard or the sound of the waves crashing on the shores of Lake Ontario. I used to think about work-related things, mere months ago. Now, I find myself thinking more like a writer would and that pleases me.

My last blog post was two and half weeks ago. Let me briefly explain my absence. I have not been idle.  After I published my last post, I began renovations on the sunroom that sits at the back of our house. For any of you who have done your own renovations, you know there is no getting around the fact that you have to work hard. Demolition takes times, as does prepping for the rebuild. Nails have to be nailed, word sawed to measure, paint applied in colours, floors laid. The work time used to complete the renovations came out of the quiet time I had been setting aside in the mornings for writing.

However, while working on my own in the sunroom, I had time to think. My thoughts manifested themselves in the form of an idea for a story. An original story that, in my mind, I saw as a Picture Book. So, as the paint was drying on the sunroom walls, I sat down and spent several days fleshing the story out and coming up with a rough copy or first draft.  I finished the story toward the middle of last week. At that point, I had some decisions to make.

The Children’s Literature market is a thriving segment of the Book Publishing Industry in North America. In my previous roles as a Teacher-Librarian or as a classroom educator, I have interacted with this market as a consumer. I have become familiar with publishing companies, with authors and with the process of marketing books. It is a big business; one that does not suffer fools lightly. Consequently, in order to be competitive with the tens of thousands of other authors seeking “to be published”, I knew that I had to treat this new story differently than I do for my blog posts, for instance.

I am in control of my blog posts. When I finish typing these words, I will not consult editors or illustrators or finance and marketing experts. Instead, I will simply click on the “Publish” button at the top of my screen and my words will be made available you in your home on your screen of choice.  It costs me, as the author and you, as the reader, nothing but time to be involved in this creative transaction.

That is not the case in the real world of book publishing. Books don’t appear in book stores and at on-line retailers by magic. They are produced, marketed, distributed and promoted by people who all need to be paid for their services. For any publishing company to agree to publish my story, they would have to consider, not only the literary merits of my work but, also, the probability of my book being a revenue-producing investment for the owner and/or shareholders of the company.  I get that. I understand and appreciate the business side of publishing my work. I cannot divorce the financial reality from wish to have my story see the light of day.

So, that having been said, I have decided to go ahead and initiate the publication process anyway and honour my original, pre-retirement goal of giving my writing a chance. Late last week, I sent a copy of my rough draft to two friends; one with experience in the world of kidlit and one with more experience in the craft of writing and creating memorable characters and scenes. I asked them both for feedback. I chose my two friends carefully because I knew that they would give targeted feedback that would help me polish the story for submission purposes. When I have received both critiques, I intend to let my eldest daughter, Leah, read my story. While slightly older than my intended audience, she will be a good judge as to the quality and reasonableness of my dialogue, for example. It is not easy having my writing critiqued because my story is my baby and, like most writers, I am very protective of it. But, to be the best story possible, I acknowledge the need for constructive advice. I feel fortunate to be part of a supportive community of writers. I know “my baby” is in good hands.

I will keep you all abreast of developments as they occur. I am happy that you are coming along for this part of my journey and invite you to see it through with me to fruition. Your support and encouragement is what has gotten me to this point in my writing career. Thanks for everything you do, in terms of reading my posts, sharing them with your friends, offering comments and so on. It all means the world to me.

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Gotta love the New Yorker Magazine. Hopefully, my story won’t lay an egg!

Come on!  You know you were thinking it, too. 🙂

Museum of Memories: a Lifetime of Reading to my Daughter.

You never know what a day is going to bring. Yesterday, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet from an American teacher. She tweeted about her Grade 5 class receiving a “Mystery Box” as part of a literacy programme sponsored by a blog called @BreakoutEDU. She showed photos of her students using clues that came with the box to crack secret codes which, in the end, opened to reveal a book called, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Ballet.  The teacher’s original tweet was aimed at the author, letting her know how excited her students were to begin reading Chasing Vermeer.

Being the supportive fellow that I am, I tweeted back to this teacher and told her that Leah and I had read this book aloud together a few years ago, along with the other two books in this trilogy and enjoyed them immensely. I went on to say that, in fact, Leah enjoyed the books so much that she had a framed print of the Vermeer art work mentioned in the story hanging in her bedroom as I typed.

Within a few minutes, I received a reply from the author, Blue Balliett, herself. Like all authors, she expressed her gratitude to me for informing her that her work had made a difference in some reader’s life. IMG_2720In turn, I sent her a photo Leah’s bedroom so she could see the print for herself. ***You can see the print on the right side of Leah’s bookcase, in the middle of the column of three framed works. The painting is called, Lady Writing.  Blue Balliett replied that Leah’s room was “the bedroom her dreams”.

This got me thinking.

Leah and I have read together from the day she was born.  As a result, we have read thousands of books together. That time we shared was very precious and has helped create many warm memories for us, both, of the books we read, the characters we came to care about, the conversations that occurred, the warmth of our snuggles and much, much more.  Reading with your children is always about more than the words on the page. It is a bonding experience that is quite loving and profound. In time, as you read an author’s words, you start to feel the books in your hearts and minds.

For most of Leah’s early life, the books we shared were simpler in nature because her intellect was not mature enough for weighty concepts. But, with each book or book series read, her mind grew stronger and her inventory of literary experiences swelled. Soon she was ready for longer, more complex stories. The first series we read that made an emotional impact on us was The Little House on the Prairie books. We read all eight books consecutively. When it came time for Pa Ingalls to help Laura into Almanzo’s wagon and then, watch them ride off together, as husband and wife to their new home, I choked up with emotion. Leah and I both knew that scene was as much about us and how we will one day feel in that situation, as it ever was about Laura and her Pa.

IMG_2710We finished the final book in late Fall. Because of the emotional impact of the series, I decided to try and find something that I could give to Leah for Christmas that would serve to remind her of our time reading Little House together. My search took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder website. There, for sale, was the china shepherdess doll that Pa had given to Ma Ingalls in their early days together. The same doll that had accompanied them across America. This doll was my gift to Leah that Christmas and has sat on a shelf in her bedroom ever since.

The commemoration of a shared experience with a story or series started with the china shepherdess doll and became a tradition that we continued with each subsequent  book series.   The Vermeer print was the piece chosen to remember the Chasing Vermeer trilogy. What follows are snapshots of other memorials to books that Leah and I shared.

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A pencil drawing entitled, Lucy at the Lamp Post, hangs on Leah’s wall by her window. It says, “A Fairy Tale begins…” on it and serves as a reminder of our joy at reading The Chronicles of Narnia and how every epic adventure begins with a fateful decision and a leap of faith.

IMG_2709  We read the entire How To Train Your Dragon series. This framed print was the first time I paired a quote from the series with art work. The quote was uttered by the main character, Hiccup and goes like this:

Because: Love never dies. What is within is more important than what is without. The Best is not always the most obvious. And, once you’ve loved truly, Thor, then you know the way.

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One of my favourite book series was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. There are those who claim that this is the series that most influenced J.K. Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter.  In any case, the quest that 11 year old Will is on to collect six “signs” and help the forces of Light in their battle with the forces of Darkness, is summed up in this important poem from the books.

When the DARK comes rising, six shall turn it back;

three from the circle, three from the track.

Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,

Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday. Bronze carried long.

Wood from the burning. Stone out of song.

Fire from the candle-ring. Water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle and Grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold,

played to wake the sleepers; oldest of the old.

Power of the Greenwitch, lost beneath the sea.

All shall find the light at last; silver on the tree.

Leah can quote this from memory.

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Our memory from The Hunger Games trilogy was “Rue’s Lullaby”, as written in the book. If you have read the books or seen the movies then, you will know how poignant this scene was.

Deep in the grass, under the willow,

a bed of grass, a soft green pillow,

lay down your head and close your eyes

When again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it’s safe and here it’s warm,

Here the daisies guard you from every harm.

Here your dreams are sweet,

Tomorrow brings them true,

Here’s the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away,

A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam’s ray,

Forget your woe and let your troubles lay,

When it’s morning, they’ll wash away.

And here….is the place…where I love you.

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From author Lois Lowry came The Giver trilogy.  From that set of books, we opted for the following quote:

   It is better, I think, to climb out in search of something instead of hating what you are leaving behind.

IMG_2718Finally, Leah and I are big fans of Phillip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy. I maintain that the final scene in the final book is one of the best scenes in Children’s Literature. From it, a speech of Love that spans the entirety of Space and Time.

I will love you forever, whatever happens.

Til I die and after I die.

And when I find my way out of the Land of the Dead, I’ll drift about forever, all atoms, til I find you again.

I’ll be looking for you, every moment…every, single moment.

And when we do find each other, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart.

Every atom of me and every atom of you…

We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams.

When they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one

They’ll have to take two; one of me and one of you.

Leah spends a lot of time on her own in her room now that she is becoming a teenager. But, as she does, I am still there; an inseparable part of who she is and who she is becoming. Her room is a museum. A museum of memories from a lifetime of reading wonderful books while surrounded by Love.

If you care to know more about how to read with your child so that they come to love books as Leah has, please pop over to my friend, Jackie Currie’s blog, Happy Hooligans. I guest-posted for her a while back. In that post, I told the story of Leah and I and the whole list of books we read together. The post is called,  75 of the Very Best Chapter Books for Girls between 5 – 13.

If The Library Was On Fire

In the middle of my teaching career, I spent a few years out of the classroom in the glorious role of Teacher-Librarian at a large elementary school in Bowmanville, Ontario. For those of us who adore Children’s Literature, being a school librarian is about as good as it gets. Not only did it become my professional responsibility to read books aloud and promote literature at all grade levels but, it also became my duty to go shopping for new books to augment what was already on our shelves!  Book catalogues from various publishing companies would fill my school mailbox so, a lot of my professional reading became familiarizing myself with the latest books on the market. There were a lot of reputable publishing companies vying for my attention and my school budget but, the company that I eventually came to love above all others was called Groundwood Books.  The creativity, originality and quality of the books they published impressed me. The very first book I ever ordered from them still impresses me to this day. It was a Picture Book biography of Charles Darwin called The Tree of Life.

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The Tree of Life  is written and illustrated by Peter Sis. Peter Sis, originally born in what was then, Czechoslovakia but, now living in the United States, is an award-winning illustrator. His penchant for detailed illustrations presented in unique and creative ways is on full display in this story of the life of Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species. At the moment of purchase, it was unlike anything Picture Book for children that I had ever seen.

Darwin’s life experiences aboard the HMS Beagle, his meticulous record-keeping and cataloging of the new species of plants and animals he encountered; especially on The Galapagos Islands, the political fall out of publishing The Origin of Species and the personal toll it all took on his life are all afforded great care and detailed expression by Sis.  Each new page is an encyclopedic exploration of Darwin’s exploits and discoveries. Consequently, The Tree of Life stands as one of those Picture Books best enjoyed in one’s lap, curled up in a cozy spot, so that every image, every position of an object, every placement of a word or a phrase can be savoured and relished for the beauty it possesses upon the page. This is a book meant to be read in standard, horizontal fashion but, also, upside down, sideways and even, with flaps that open to reveal the magnum opus which is The Origin of Species depicted visually.

I can remember the day this book arrived at school. That particular day, third period, I had a Grade 6/7 class visit the Library. This class was led by a teacher who believed in the importance of books and reading so, when his Library time came, he always accompanied his class and read silently with them for the entire period. Because this is what he wanted with his period in the Library, I always acted as the good role-model and read long with the class, too. This day, I read The Tree of Life by Peter Sis for the very first time. As those Grade 6 and 7 students sat quietly reading their books, I was sitting there having my mind blown wide open!  What a wholly and completely different take on the traditional biography.  I remain as captivated by this book today as I was when I first read it fifteen years ago.

Even though I stopped being a Teacher-Librarian years ago, I have still maintained my connection with Groundwood Books and continue to receive their catalogues in the mail at my house. The quality of the roster of books that they publish remains very high, in terms of the beauty of the writing, the artistry of the illustrations and the topical nature of the themes being discussed.

What a joyful time it was being surrounded by such amazing literature all day long, every day, in that school Library.  Some times, I would find a quiet moment while I was there and I would play an imaginary game with myself in which the library was on fire and I only had time to save a handful of books before I had to evacuate through the door. The longer I stayed in that role as Teacher-Librarian, the more books I read and the harder it became choose which ones I would save as the flames licked at my heels. But, no matter when this scenario played itself out in my mind, The Tree of Life by Peter Sis, was always one of the books that I was determined to risk life and limb to save.

It is just that good.

Gift Cards

As a family, we all like to read.

When the girls were younger, Keri and I made the deliberate decision to set aside a portion of every, single day to read to them.  We read Picture books, mainly. But, we, also, read Joke books, Cookbooks, Riddle books, non-fiction books about whatever happened to be of interest in their world at the time, crafting books and so on. We read to the girls because we valued sharing a portion of ourselves with them. Just us and just them. Usually, some cuddling and cosy times were involved. Often, good questions were asked and discussions held. In time, both girls sought comfort from books on their own and, as such, both have developed subject interests that reflect their personalities. Both read a lot. Since they are both growing up, they read less and less with us by their side and more and more on their own. But, they do read. In order to encourage them to continue reading on their own, we gave them a card. No, not a gift card to a book store. Instead, we gave them a card of immense value and importance and it didn’t cost us a dime. Keri and I gave each girl their own Library card.

If reading is our religion then, libraries are our church.

Public libraries are a gift to the world.  They provide access, within communities, to the totality of the world’s stories and ideas and opinions and they do this for free.  You can borrow almost any book on almost any topic and the good folks at your local library will let you borrow it for a few weeks for free!  DVDs, audio books, magazines……all free to borrow.  You can research historical documents, attend lectures, meetings and workshops, all for free!  A Library is a safe haven for the lonely, for seniors, as well as, for parents with newborn babies who just need some adult contact in order to maintain their sanity. Public Libraries, by their very nature, are open to all who seek inspiration or solace from stories or, who seek knowledge of the world around them. They are Holy places. Libraries are a treasure and the MacInnes Family loves them!

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This is our local public library. We wear it out!

When the girls were first born, up until they entered the school system on a full-time basis, they spent much of their time here. The Library had many programmes for toddlers and newborn children that exposed them to songs, poetry, drama, stories and crafting, all the while doing so in a social setting with other children. These programmes were fun. Pairing reading with pleasurable sensations is one of the keys to helping children develop a desire to become readers as they grow older. It is the same philosophy behind the bonding process that occurs in your home, with your newborn babe, when you hold them in your arms and sing to them or read to them. Babies soon begin to associate your words with the pleasure of being held close. After continued exposure to this combination, babies grown into toddlers who grow into young children who begin to automatically view books and stories warmly, even if you are not there to hold them. Our library did a great job of augmenting the loving parenting that our girls were getting at home. It was the beginning of a very wonderful relationship for our girls with public libraries in our area and around the world.

Whenever we travel, we make an effort to visit libraries. When we travel to Cape Breton to visit my mother, we always stop at the Glace Bay and the Sydney branches of the Cape Breton Regional Library System. Nanna has her own library card which she makes available to our girls whenever they visit. The beauty of this arrangement is that we do not have to pack copious amounts of heavy books when we travel “back home”. Instead, we go to the local libraries upon our arrival and stock up with enough reading material to last throughout our visit.

Sometimes, when we travel to bigger centres, just visiting gorgeous libraries is enough. This is certainly true of the beautifully-designed Halifax Public Library, which has been listed as being one of the top 10-20 public libraries in the world.  When we travel east to see my Mom, we always make a point of stopping in Halifax to see my sister, Mary. When we visit with my sister, we always end up at the Halifax Public Library.

Architectually-speaking, the Halifax Public Library is very modern looking and, certainly, a sparkling addition to the skyline of the city. All glass and interesting angles, the Library grabs your attention and draws you inside. Once inside, the library is dazzlingly bright and airy. The Halifax Public Library is five stories tall and hums with activity on all five levels. The design is amazing. People seamlessly flow in and all about the space. It is very well-stocked it is yet, ever so spacious. How clean the lines are in all directions. There is a coffee bar and a rooftop patio that is always busy. The roof is covered in organic material, too, that helps the building breathe, as it were.

As modern and airy as the Halifax Public Library is, the New York Public Library’s flagship branch, the Stephen Schwartzman Branch, is stately and classically-designed. On our recent trip to NYC, the very first place we visited was the library. What a gorgeous space; all marble and oak and an air of refinement.  We treated this space with reverence and moved through it in hushed steps and quiet manner. How lucky we were to have been there. How lucky New Yorkers are to be able to go there whenever they so desire.

Hopefully, as a family, we have many more travelling adventures in store for us. Wherever we end up, you can be assured that we will find a way to include a trip to the library on our itinerary.  But, you don’t need to travel the world to see a great library because a great library already exists within the comfort of your own community, ready to share the world with you there. If you haven’t visited your local library recently then, please do so. You might be pleasantly surprised at all it has to offer.

This month, libraries are encouraging citizens; especially families, to come in and sign up for free library cards. This is what we did years ago for our girls.  By providing access to the world of free books, these library cards have proven to be the best, most practical and cost-effective gift we have ever given to them.  Not long after getting their cards, they became aware that they were allowed to borrow fifty(!!!!!) books at a time. Now, when we go to the library, which is fairly often, we take those large, heavy-duty shopping bags with us……and we fill them to the brim!!! I kid you not. 🙂

Our girls are readers. Our family loves Public Libraries. Do yourself and your family a favour and visit your local branch today. The world awaits……….and it is all for free!!!!!!

What’s The Name of the Tree?

 

If you know me at all then, you will know that I love books and stories. In particular, I love Children’s books.  Over the course of my thirty-year teaching career, I have read thousands of books aloud to my students; some of which have come to hold a special place in my heart because of the content of the book, the beauty of the illustrations or the purpose that the book served at the time.  I have decided to share some of those books with you in this blog. I think reading aloud to children is important and it all starts with a reader, a listener and a good book. Here is today’s special book. Enjoy.

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The Name of the Tree is an Bantu tale retold by Cecilia Barker Lottridge. The illustrations are masterfully done by the great Ian Wallace.  This book is magical and has always been one of the first books I read aloud each year to my Primary students. Let me tell you why.

The first week of school is always a very important time when it comes to creating a culture in a classroom. In addition to introducing the rules and routines that will form the operational structure of your classroom, the first week of school is when you begin planting the emotional seeds that you hope will bear fruit over time in the form of increased self-confidence, initiative, creativity and inner peace.  You can call this establishing the tone of the classroom, if you like. As a teacher, almost nothing is more important at the start of any school year. If you create a welcoming, safe space for children; a space that values and celebrates the special qualities inherent in each child then, chances are good that your students are going to want to come to school each day and that, once there, they will give you their best effort because they will trust you, as the classroom leader.

***If anyone is interested, I can write a post that specifically addresses the various ways I create a welcoming tone in my classrooms but, for now, I will focus in on the role reserved for The Name of the Tree.

I value the importance of being a literate human being. In a society that is fuelled by information, being literate helps me to successfully navigate through the sea of news and images that fill my TVs and tablets and phones and computers. Being literate helps me to critically evaluate the information I am receiving so I can make intelligent decisions based on what I read.  Being literate is a Life skill as important as any other.

But these days, when students come to school, they do so more with a game-based type of skill set that is important for operating technology and for the creative element that comes from game play and from coding. But, increasingly, children come to school these days without the language-based experiences that come from being read to from books. I was read to as a child. I read aloud to my own children at home. But, more and more, children are being raised in households where screen time trumps book time. Therefore, one of my most important jobs as a Primary teacher at the beginning of a school year is to help my students to develop an interest in reading the books that fill our classroom. Because, as you know, reading books is all about developing vocabulary (which is the foundation of personal self-expression), learning information (which is the foundation of our knowledge base) and developing a sense of wonder and imagination (which is the foundation of personal creativity).

When I extend my invitation for my students to join me in the wonderful world of reading and of books, that invitation comes in the form of The Name of the Tree. As the children sit around me on the carpet that first or second day of school, I inform them that the book I am about to read is magical. I tell them that the book contains a trick to help them remember important things in their lives. In fact, I make them a challenge and predict that once they learn the name of the tree, they will never forget it for the rest of their lives!  I tell them that if I meet them at the mall or a park or wherever in twenty years and ask them for the name of the tree, they will remember it instantly because, once they learn the trick of remembering, they will never forget.

The short strokes of this story are that there has been a drought in the jungle and the animals are all starving. So, they decide to leave their home and search for food elsewhere. On their journey they come to a tree that is filled with delicious fruit. However, the branches are too high for even the giraffe to reach; the bark to smooth for even the monkey to climb. An elderly tortoise informs the groups that this is a magical tree that will only lower its beaches if someone correctly states the name of the tree.  Various animals travel back, one at a time, to their original homeland to ask the King of the Jungle, the lion, (who has stayed behind when the others left) for the name. He tells all who ask but, because of over-confidence or carelessness, each of the animals has misfortune befall them on the trip back to the tree and none are able to say the name of the tree once they return. Finally, a young, small tortoise offers to go. The other animals mock the tortoise because it is so small and young (at which time, I point to my students that they are all small and young, too). Hmmm!  Anyway, as you may expect, the young tortoise learns the name of the tree from the Lion (in a comical exchange that draws laughter every time I read the story), remembers the name of the tree using a memory strategy (which is the “magical” element of the story) and helps save the rest of the animals from starving.

After the story concludes, I make a point of reinforcing the memory technique by having the kids chant the name of the tree, just like the small tortoise does. Then, throughout the course of the day, I ask random students at random times to tell me the name of the tree and then, I always make a big deal about it, “See!  I told you that you would never forget!  I knew you would remember! And you always will!”  When the kids are in the hallway, getting ready for recess, I will ask a former student who happens to be wandering by for the the name of the tree. Nine times out of ten, they remember on the spot. If they hesitate, I hum the melody of the chant and it comes back to them. Like magic.

This book! That story!

Once the kids hear this story and learn the “magic” of it, their interest in other books in our classroom collection is usually piqued.  At this early part of the school year, I need to open the door to the world of books and have the kids willingly walk through. Once they demonstrate their willingness to, at least, look at books then, I can help them on their journey to becoming readers.  The Name of the Tree has been the key that has unlocked this door for my students for the past few decades now. As such, it is one of the most important books I have ever owned. My students and I are forever indebted to Cecilia Barker Lottridge and Ian Wallace for their efforts. Generations of young readers have been born because of this book. This post is my small tribute.