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READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens

Check Out a Sixth Grader! And Other Creative Ideas on Teaching with Photo and Picture Books

My FREADom classroom library has a good selection of photo books and Caldecott winners to inspire future creatives.
Recently I attended the Buy Michigan Now Festival in the small, charming town of Northville. Always on the lookout for new books, sure enough, a title caught me eye and the charming, engaging author reeled me into his world.

Wayne Brillhart is a photographer and author from Hartland, Michigan. His latest story book, The Deer with the Purple Nose features some extraordinary photos of the state's indigenous wildlife. (Check it out on Amazon: The Deer with the Purple Nose.)

As a photographer, Wayne has traveled the globe, but he tells me that it was in his own backyard where he discovered stories to tell with his pictures. More than a collection of photos, The Deer with the Purple Nose is a fun mystery told from the point of view of Wayne's English setter, Purdy.

As Purdy attempts to solve the mystery of why Dottie the deer has a purple nose, the dog engages with all manner of Michigan wildlife: a groundhog, raccoon, chipmunk, and 10 species of birds. The storyline supports Rachel Carson’s idea that children have a natural interest in the world around them, but that interest needs to be cultivated and nurtured. (It's well worth exploring her book on the topic to learn more: The Sense of Wonder).

Okay, so I really like this message and this book, but the story is aimed at young kids. How can I use it with my sixth graders without them feeling like they're being babied? (Babying is like death for a tween.)


As I set up my FREADom Classroom Library anew for the coming school year, I flipped through the photo books by Mathew Brady, Ansel Adams, and the photographers of Life magazine. Even though they're for adults, they're accessible to many ages, and I stock them because always have a few budding photographers in every class. I think Wayne's photos will be just as captivating to these students, especially with a local angle. (I keep Caldecott picture books on hand to inspire budding artists.)

Many tweens now have camera phones or digital cameras (or they get them as Christmas gifts during the school year—they're right at that age). So, I can encourage them to look at The Deer with the Purple Nose from a skill and craft point of view—how to take great nature photos and explore their own back yards.

What about the other students? I thought: In Geography class we study not only humans, but flora and fauna to help answer the question: "What is this place like?" At the back of The Deer with a Purple Nose, I found a glossary of the birds that appear in the story. I start to wonder: What stories can my students discover hiding right in their own backyards?

A nature writing project is percolating with the key word being indigenous.


Finally, there's my emerging "Check Out a Sixth Grader" program (not what you think ;-). I mean "check out" as in check out of the library—and yes, a real, live sixth grader. Here's the plan, which piggy backs on our "reading buddies" program:

  1. My sixth graders choose a favorite book that's suitable for second graders. (The Deer with the Purple Nose is on level, but I'll encourage higher level books with pictures, too.)

  2. They fill out a card with their name, email, and the title of the book.

  3. I put all the cards in a box that I hand to our school librarian.

  4. When the second graders to go library class, they can look through the box and pick a card. They contact the sixth grader for a live, 10-minute read-aloud period, student to student. The read-aloud takes place when my sixth graders are in library class.

That's it! I think 10 minutes is about the right length to bond over a book. We'll see how it goes.


While on the subject of Michigan authors, there are a couple other books I’d like to mention.

Thistledom: A Kingdom is Born and its sequel Thistledom Vol II: Seeds of Promise Must Bloom in Adversity, by John LaCroix, take place in a fascinating fantasy world in the Land of the Mitten (as Michigan is known), hidden from human eyes, and built by industrious creatures called Nobbies. (Here's the book on Amazon: Thistledom: A Kingdom Is Born.)

Originally, LaCroix wrote this story for his grandchildren to reinforce positive qualities such as hard work, perseverance, loyalty, courage, and love. Zygmunt, as the Nobby Master, along with his wife, Irene, is the noble leader who lays a solid foundation for the little kingdom.

Another Michigan author, Jody Lamb, wrote a realistic fiction called Easter Ann Peters' Operation Cool. She deals very appropriately for tweens with the topic of alcoholism. Tweens are interested in stories of personal struggle, some of which can get quite intense, and it's hard to know when or how much harsh reality a child is ready for.

In this novel, Easter, a shy and behind-the-scenes kind of girl, is beginning seventh grade with a 4-step plan for improving her image and having a great year. As she puts her plan into action, things start falling apart at home.

Easter works hard to balance school and her plan and to cover up her mother’s alcoholism. By the end, the adults in Easter’s life (her father and grandmother, Dottie) are there for her. The important message for tweens: you are not alone!

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