Sunday, October 16, 2011

Punny Books and Wordy Reads, for Kids of All Ages

I offer up a sampling from my book collection. These books might nurture interest in various aspects of language and accelerate lexipensity. Titles are listed in order, from simplistic to advanced. Enjoy!


Sunshine, Moonshine, by Jennifer Armstrong. A lovely rhyming picture book, suitable for preK to 2. Use this book to develop awareness of compound words, especially how they once started as separate words. After reading and discussing the book, the class might brainstorm compounds that contain sun: sunflower, suntan, sunglasses, etc. (Another picture book for developing awareness of how compounds work is Once There Was a Bull ... (frog): Adventures in Compound Words, by Rick Walton.)  

The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown.  This picture book does not tell a story, it asks a question, prompting the reader to drill down to the heart of a thing. The author asks, "What is the most important thing about rain?" (let children brainstorm at this point). Then she provides a list of things that describe rain (characteristics and attributes are academic words teachers might eventually include in the class discussion). She arrives at the conclusion, "The most important thing about rain is that it is wet" (allow the class to debate this).  Another question: What is the most important thing about a spoon?"  Finally, my favorite, "What is the most important thing about YOU?" (Students could make a poster describing themselves or a fellow student, focusing on their most important trait.)

In Philosophy Now, Professor Thomas Wartenberg explains how to use picture books to help children reason. In the post, Picture Book Philosophy, he discusses several books that suit this goal. In the following excerpt, he refers to The Important Book:
I am repeatedly amazed by what children are able to accomplish in a philosophical discussion. I am often struck by how the children make claims that remind me of ideas I learned only after years of reading and thinking about philosophy. For example, consider The Important Book (1990) by Margaret Wise Brown. For each of a number of things, such as grass, an apple, rain, a spoon, and you, the book says that something is the important thing about it. It also lists a number of other things that the object also is. The important thing about rain, for example, is that it is wet; its other properties are falling from the sky, sounding like rain, making things shiny, and not tasting like anything. When a group of eight-year-olds were discussing the book, they were very dissatisfied with that list. They proposed a list of their own, which included: It makes puddles and ponds; it splashes; it can evaporate; and it makes mud. But the children decided that they thought the most important thing about rain was that it makes things grow.

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Wilbur. It's pocket-sized with b/w line art, and clever verse. Hard to find and out of print. (Update: It's now available in ebook format!)

An excerpt:
What is the opposite of riot
It's lots of people, keeping quiet.

The Unbreakable Code, by Sara Hoagland Hunter. This beautifully illustrated picture book is suitable for grades 4-6. A Navajo Code Talker tells his grandson about the famous code created by the Navajos, Comanches, and Hopis during World War II. The Japanese were not able to decipher any intercepted messages. Below are several examples of how native words were used in isolation or in combination to create the code:
  • paahu + kiihu = houses (on) water = paaki = ships
  • a/tsá  = eagle =  transport plane
  • béésh +  loo´ = metal fish = submarine
Charles Chibitty, a Comanche Code Talker, describes how the codeword for army tank was invented, after seeing a picture of a tank (source: The National Museum of the American Indian):
Well, when they first got us in there for Code Talkers, we had to work that out among our own selves, so we didn’t have a word for tank. And the one said it’s like a [Comanche words] he said, it’s just like a turtle, you know. It has a hard shell and it moves, and so we called it a wakaree´e, a turtle.


Donavan's Word Jar, by MonaLisa DeGross. In this short chapter book, a third grader collects interesting words and stores them in a glass jar. His classmates think he's a word nerd, but in the end, he (Donavan) saves the day and everyone wants to collect words, too. Some teachers read this book at the beginning of the term, presenting the class with an empty jar. Throughout the year, students insert words, written on colorful strips of paper, finishing the year with a celebration of words and language.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (actually, anything by Lemony Snicket). This author does not assume that readers understand idiomatic expressions, and includes the definition in the narrative, but in a conversational tone that does not seem like a distraction or an intrusion. This is exemplified in the excerpt below, from The Carnivorous Carnival:
But I always insist that the most frightening part of any beast is its belly, for the simple reason that if you are seeing the belly of the beast it means you have already seen the teeth of the beast and the claws of the beast and even the hair of the beast, and now you are trapped and there is probably no hope for you. For this reason, the phrase "in the belly of the beast" has become an expression which means "inside some terrible place with little chance of escaping safely," and it is not an expression one should look forward to using.

Frindle, by Andrew Clements. I cannot say enough about this chapter book, so I won't. Go get it. Read it for your own enjoyment. Read it with the class. Applicable to grades 4-12, but especially best for grades 4-6. This book has a fast-paced and highly relevant plot; the focus is on free speech, word coinage, the dictionary, etymology, and entrepreneurship.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, now celebrating its 50th birthday, and considered to be the Alice in Wonderland of American literature.  Like Alice, this book is quite advanced and best swallowed in small doses; it requires strong verbal reasoning and extensive prior knowledge, including knowledge of idiomatic expressions.

Rather than going down the rabbit hole, Milo, a bored young adolescent, takes a trip through a magical tollbooth into a fantastical wonderland. Juster makes good fun with idioms, as when Milo JUMPS to the island of CONCLUSIONS. In this allegory, well known phrases are served tongue-in-cheek, and life lessons are couched as whimsical words of wisdom. Throughout, the relative merits of numbers and letters are debated, arriving at a happy-ever-after when both Rhyme and Reason finally prevail together, and the Kingdom is restored to sanity.  Read more at The New Yorker.


A Little Book of Language, by David Crystal (book summary). Even though the author seems to be addressing an older adolescent, I learned a lot about how human language came to be, the components of language, and the sociocultural aspects of language. A delightful read, with a conversational style, and each chapter is only a few pages.

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, by Bill Bryson. In typical  style, Bill Bryson serves up history and comedy, in narrative sauce. My own interest in word origins was secured with the first chapter of this book, the first book I read on this topic. Bryson might be off about some stuff, but he makes up for it in humor.

The Pun Also Rises, by John Pollack. This new book describes "How the humble pun revolutionized language, changed history, and made WORDPLAY more than SOME ANTICS." Need I say more? For more about this book, and the punny author, visit The Morning News.


The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. A novel, based in fact, describing how a medical doctor, disturbed by the horrors of the Civil War, winds up in England, incarcerated. From the lunatic asylum, he answers Oxford's nationwide appeal to "men of letters" to help find specific words contextualized in published texts, thus occupying himself by locating thousands of the word quotations used in The Oxford English Dictionary, first edition. I read this book from cover to cover, with amazement at times. Not for children--some disturbing and graphic scenes.

That's all for now. I'll save the rest for another day. Drop a comment if I have missed a favorite of yours!


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