Category: Reading

Starting a Book Club for Children

By Mariah Bruehl,

Playful Learning: Staring a Book Club for Children

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a love of reading…

Yet, as many of us know, it doesn’t necessarily come easy. Even with our best efforts and intentions, it can be hard to figure out how to spark and maintain an interest in reading with our children.

When our daughters where in approximately 2nd and 3rd grade a small group of us moms decided start a book club. This endeavor turned out to be a wonderful experience, with memories that will last a lifetime! Adding the social element to reading, was just the inspiration the girls needed to stay actively engaged in reading outside of school. They couldn’t wait for the next book club meeting and loved discussing the nuances of each book together with their friends.

I also loved the fact that the other parents in the group became such wonderful role models for all of the children who participated . Our book discussions evolved into important life discussions…

While instilling a lifelong love of reading within your child can feel daunting at times, forming a book club for them is an achievable and rewarding thing you can do right away. And, your child will appreciate your effort for years to come.

Here are some tips on forming a book club to help you along the way:

  • Encourage all of the children to make book recommendations and spend quality time flipping through and reading the descriptions of the suggested readings together as a group. The process of selecting good books is a valuable lesson in and of itself. It’s also great to set-up a time to meet with your local children’s librarian. Call her ahead of time and ask her what she recommends for the age, level, and interest of your group.
  • Start out by talking about things you can share as a group during book talks (see printable below). The elements mentioned in the printable are great comprehension strategies that good readers use. They help young readers to know what to look for when reading and make for great discussions.
  • Have each child create their own reading journal. Explain that their journals are a place they an draw illustrations of scenes from the book, write down questions they have as they are reading, keep track of new vocabulary, record their favorite quotes and passages from the book, and more! It’s helpful to paste the book discussion printable below on the front page and the vocabulary printable on the back pages. You can find our favorite notebook supplies, here.
  • Provide sticky notes! Ask the children to mark their questions, comments, favorite words, etc. as they read, to share with the group each week.
  • Rotate the meetings at each other’s houses. For each meeting ask the child who is hosting the event to be in charge of coming up with a fun activity that the group can do that relates to the theme of the book. Learning how to host friends in your home is another valuable life lesson…
  • Enjoy the process! Let go of preconceived expectations and know that more than anything, quality time with your child is the best gift you can give.
Book Clubs: Book Discussions Book Club: Vocabulary

Enjoy Our Online Book Clubs

Put together a small group of friends and enjoy our online book clubs together!

Playful Learning: Summer Book Clubs

Our Inner Poet: Write an Infinity Poem

By Mariah Bruehl,

Our Inner Poet: Write an Infinity Poem

What could be better than good literature, math explorations, and a dose of poetry? Good children’s literature naturally engages students and often initiates meaningful, rich discussions. Literature draws us in and keeps us together around a central theme, but also lets us enter based on our personal experiences and interests. Often, we can touch most, if not all children with a powerful story.

Kate Hosford has done a great job of personalizing abstract concepts in her book Infinity and Me. Her words along with Gabi Swiatkowska’s gorgeous illustrations personalize the concept of infinity. Uma, the main character, questions her friends and family members on how each person imagines infinity. The answers are varied and imaginative but also sweetly personal. Young readers will love to engage with this delightful story about a difficult, but now accessible concept.

After reading and discussing this book with your child, try writing an infinity poem:

  1. Brainstorm ideas about infinity including: (1) feelings, (2) images, (3) activities one might want to do and (4) wonderings or questions.
  2. Write a poem about the concept of infinity together to model writing to complete a sentence starter. Ask for ideas and show how to write these in sentence form.
  3. Using the brainstorming list, have your child or students write a poem of their own.
  4. Share finished poems with pairs or the whole class.

More to Explore…

  1. Draw a picture to share one of the ideas you presented in your poem. Look closely at the illustrations by Gabi Swiakowska for ideas.
  2. Visit Kate Hosford’s website and download the curriculum pack for more engaging activities.



Word Play: A Workout for Your Brain

By Mariah Bruehl,


As a kid, I loved playing word games.  I grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with my mom, and for me the Sunday comic section was more about the crossword puzzle, hidden word search and Jumble than anything else. Whether it’s a board game, a paper and pencil creation or one of the many apps I have on my iPhone, I continue to be obsessed with any kind of word game or puzzle. 

My own two daughters, and the students in my classroom, are continually reminded of my obsession, and I am always looking for ways to impart my love of word play onto others.  Manipulating letters into words forces the brain to work – in essence, word play is a (FUN) way to exercise your brain!  For young children, word games improve spelling, increase working memory, develop language skills and build children’s vocabulary.

Here are a few oldies-but-goodies for your next family game night:

Now try this homemade paper and pencil creation:

Roll-a-Letter, Make a Word!

Players: 2 to 3
Materials:  Printables, Die, Timer (optional), Pencil

How to Play:

1. Before play begins, print out a letter chart.  Each player should then roll a die 6 times.  After each roll, the player chooses one letter from the column that corresponds to the number on the die.   Players record all 6 letters, and their point value, on the recording sheet.   Note: Letters can be written down more than once.  For example:  If you roll a 5 two different times, a player can write down the same letter after each roll.


2. Set a timer, if desired, for 1 or 2 minutes. Each player makes as many words as she can before the time is up.

3. Once time has been called, players score each word by adding up the letters’ point value (similar to Scrabble). The player with the highest score wins. Note: Younger children can also add up the number of words they spelled correctly, and this can be their total score.

Variation:  If you have specific spelling words to practice, write these words on small index cards.  Turn them face down in the middle of the playing area.  To begin, turn over one card from the deck.  The goal of the game is to gather all of the letters needed to spell the word before your opponent does.  Take turns rolling the die and choosing a letter from the column that corresponds to the number on the die.  Write down the letter on a piece of paper.  The first player to spell the word on the card gets to keep the card.  Continue playing until all of the cards in the deck have been played.   

No word play is complete without applying what you know! 

Check out these playful picture books all about words:

What are some of your favorite word games? 

For another fun word game from Playful Learning, try Word Mastermind!

 *This post contains affiliate links.

Picture Book Project: Homes Around the World

By Mariah Bruehl,


“The Potential of the Child is stunted when the end point of their learning is formulated in advance.” – Carla Rinaldi

Children’s literature holds so many possibilities for open-ended explorations. As Maria Montessori stated, education is not something a teacher does, but a process which occurs naturally and spontaneously in any child. Enjoy sharing stories with your children and see what questions are sparked and then take their lead in extending the picture book experience.

A picture book can be shared in so many different ways and the weight it plays, depends on you as the parent, care giver, or teacher. It helps to know the story you are reading well. Pre-reading prior to sharing with your child allows you to think of little anecdotes to sprinkle throughout the story. A little knowledge about the author and illustrator and even the publishing house is always beneficial. Gather more titles by the author and illustrator or on the topic to allow this book to be the launch pad for further questioning and research.


Every now and then a picture book comes along and it is moving, truly moving and it becomes, almost overnight, a modern day classic. Often it is the clever combination of author and illustrator and on other occasions it is simply the magic of one person. In its simplicity an entire forest of activities open up and the possibilities are endless!

Playful Learning: Home

Home, by Carson Ellis is a picture book created by the most magical illustrator Carson Ellis who is based in Oregon and has a wonderful life with her two sons, husband Colin Meloy, and many animals. Her illustration style is whimsical and wild and embraces the imagination of its viewers with the unspoken invitation to explore and question…

  • Who lives here?
  • What do they eat?
  • What do they value?
  • Would I like to live like these people?
  • Where in the world do people live like this?


Print out the attached world map and see if you can locate these homes on the map. You can write down the continents, name of the countries, and illustrate the homes.

Another possibility is to do some research on any of the homes, countries and cultures mentioned?
What can you find out about:

  • Vikings?
  • The country of Kenya or Japan?
  • Norse Gods?
  • Babushkas?
  • Nursery rhymes?

As a family or a class group create your own book entitled Home inspired by Carson Ellis. Pose the question “Let’s create our own Home book, what shall we include?”

Home is a must for any serious book collector and makes the most beautiful and thoughtful gift. Make sure to check out other titles illustrated by Carson Ellis.

For Further Exploration…

*This post contains affiliate links.

Author Focus: Susan Verde

By Mariah Bruehl,

Author Focus: Susan Verde

I am thrilled to be collaborating with Emma Walton Hamilton, Susan Verde, and Stefanie Sacks to offer a Parenting Discussion Series in the studio. I thought it would be fun to do interviews of them here, because they have so many gems of parenting advice to offer. Today I have the honor of bringing you Susan Verde…


Susan Verde is an award-winning children’s book author, elementary educator with a Master’s in Reading Remediation and a certified kids’ yoga teacher in the practice and mindfulness for kids from pre-k through high school. In addition to being an author, yogi and native New Yorker, Susan also leads mindfulness workshops for children and adults. Her books focus on a variety of topics, and always highlights the unique perspective children have on the world. Her stories focus on their interactions with the world around them and allow them deal with big issues in a calming and mindful way. From yoga sequences to lifelong friendships and more, Susan’s books are used to teach children how to be proud of themselves and how to support one another in their pursuits — no matter how small they may seem!

Susan’s newest book, The Water Princess, is slated to be published in fall 2016 and is part of the series she has worked on with her illustrator and the best-selling, award-winning author and illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds. Other books in the Reynolds illustration series include, The Museum, You & Me, and I Am Yoga.


Mariah: Your books all have such diverse and interesting topics, how do you choose what to write about next?

Susan: Thank you! Actually I often feel like the topics choose me. I don’t typically search for ideas usually when I am in the midst of everyday life something happens that inspires me and then I tap into my own feelings from my childhood and somehow it comes together as a story. For example, the idea for The Museum came about when I was touring a gallery with my own children and my son lay down on the floor in the middle of the room and told me he couldn’t look at any more paintings of food because he was “starving!” I was immediately struck by how the art made him feel and wrote a poem right then and there to keep him engaged in the rest of the art and of course get him up off of the floor. As I turned the poem into a story I considered how I remember what art and museums felt like to me when I was a kid and brought that into the mix. I think my intention behind my writing no matter the topic is really about capturing and supporting the unique experience of being a child.


Mariah: Are your children an influence on your writing or the characters in your stories?

Susan: Yes, my children are definitely an influence on my writing as I watch them grow and change and grapple with their own challenges. They are also my sounding boards as I always read them drafts of my stories and they love to give me honest feedback…sometimes a bit too honest! However, some of my stories although relatable to my own kids came from other places. You and Me was inspired by my serendipitous meeting and subsequent friendship with illustrator Peter H. Reynolds who has been my collaborator on many of my books. I Am Yoga came from ALL of my yoga students I have taught over the years and what I get from my own practice.


Mariah: The topic you will be exploring during our Parent Discussion Series, is mindfulness. Why is it important to explore mindfulness with the children in our lives?

Susan: Mindfulness is a word that we are hearing all of the time nowadays and unfortunately it is not always understood. It is often used to convey a certain desired set of behaviors towards others. Being mindful is actually a particular way of paying attention to and noticing one’s own experience at any given moment in a non-judgmental way. It is important to understand mindfulness and explore it with ourselves and our children because it is this ability to be present and connected to oneself that allows us to connect to the external in a more meaningful way. Kids are bombarded with external stimulation…busy schedules, school pressures, bullying, and technology. They need to have the ability to create calm and space and understand what they are feeling. Their brains and bodies need a reset button. Mindfulness is that reset and a way to cultivate empathy, compassion, and self-care. Being mindful provides an opportunity to choose a response rather than react. The practice of mindfulness is one we all need to bring into our lives.


Mariah: Can you share some tips on how to be mindful parents? What are some ways we can explore mindfulness with our children?

Susan: Being a mindful parent doesn’t mean you will have all of the answers or your household will suddenly transform into a place of constant Zen and peace. It just means that in any given situation you will have more tools in your parenting tool belt to help your kids and yourself through challenging situations and difficult or strong emotions. It can change the dynamic and definitely open channels of communication.

There are many specific activities you can try with your kids and on your own to help cultivate mindfulness. Noticing the breath and doing some meditation is one exercise. There are also mindful listening and even mindful eating activities you can do. Try practicing mindfulness while doing a typically mundane chore such as washing dishes. This means noticing the feel of the water, the smell of the soap, how many scrubs does it take to wash a pan? Although this might feel silly or awkward it is training oneself to notice and engage all of the senses and it can make “chores” into something fun for kids. By the way…acknowledging the “awkward” is mindful too!


Mariah: Thank you so much for joining us!

Susan: Thank you so much for the interview Mariah! I am thrilled to be a part of Playful Learning’s Parent Discussion Series!


Author Focus: Susan Verde


In the Studio…

Playful Learning: Parent Discussion Series

Author Focus: Emma Walton Hamilton

By Mariah Bruehl,

Author Focus: Emma Walton Hamilton

I am thrilled to be collaborating with Emma Walton Hamilton, Susan Verde, and Stefanie Sacks to offer a Parenting Discussion Series in the studio. I thought it would be fun to do interviews of them here, because they have so many gems of parenting advice to offer. Today I have the honor of bringing you Emma Walton Hamilton…

Emma Walton Hamilton is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and educator. With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over thirty children’s books, seven of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list. Her resource book, RAISING BOOKWORMS: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal.

Mariah: Emma, you have written a number of wonderful books for children over the years. What was your inspiration for writing a book specifically for parents?

Emma: Well, truthfully it came out of the fact that because of all the children’s books that mom and I write together, we do a lot of public appearances, book signings and book tours. People in the audiences that we were speaking to–parents, caregivers, and teachers–were constantly saying to us, “How can I get my kids to put down the cellphone, the TV remote or the computer? My kids used to love to read… but all they want to do now is play the electronics.”  That certainly that was an experience I was having as a parent as well, so I thought I’d try to explore some answers.  It started out as an article, and once I started writing it opened up this big Pandora’s box.


Mariah: You state that it is never too young to start reading to children. In fact, you even discuss the benefits of reading to babies in utero. Why should parents start reading to their children so early?

Emma:  The theory behind reading to kids in utero comes from studies they did at the University of North Carolina. They had a group of pregnant moms that would read selected passages to babies in utero, and after the babies were born they gave those passages to other people with different voices to read–and they noticed that when the babies were read those same passages, regardless of whether it was by the same voice or not, they would demonstrate recognition and pleasure, increased sucking and heart rates, and all the things that we know, in infants, correlate with good feelings.

From my point of view, we want to start reading as early as possible to lay the groundwork for associating books with pleasure and value.  We hear from parents a lot, “My baby can’t talk yet, should I really be reading to them?” The answer is yes, that’s how they learn! It’s the language, it’s the words coming from their loved ones’ voices. It’s also the action of turning the pages and beginning to associate images with words and sounds.

I will never forget when my son was two months old we gave him those soft books that we would prop up for him in his stroller. They had no words, they were just pictures with big shapes and bright colors to engage the imagination. Every so often, when he would get fussy we would turn the page.  And then one day he reached out his little fingers and turned the page for himself. For me it’s all about laying the foundation for the greater value of both independent and shared reading later in life.


Mariah: You talk about the association between reading and chore as being the biggest factor in the loss of interest in reading.  What do you mean by that?

Emma: I am sure as an educator and a parent you have experienced this first hand. When our children our little and we are reading with them in the first few years, they are sitting on our laps, we are snuggling in bed or maybe we are nursing, it is everything warm and cozy… and they learn to associate the act of reading and stories with pleasure and love.

Then when they go to school and they begin to read for themselves, parents tend to back off of reading to their children. The balance tips, and all of a sudden there is less of reading equals pleasure and more of reading equals struggle–because they are learning how to read and it’s hard–or reading equals chore and responsibility. There are any number of challenges that are attached to learning to read in school or any academic setting. There is also the nature of the reading material as well.  A lot of times what we are reading out of necessity to learn how to read is perhaps not the thing that engages our imaginations.


Mariah: What is your advice to parents for keeping the connection between reading and joy alive?

Emma: There are a hundred plus recommendations specific to each age group in the book about this, but essentially it is about knowing your child and knowing what he or she responds to.  One kid’s pleasure may be another kid’s torture.  For my son, his great pleasure is to read non-fiction and humor. That would be torture for my daughter, who adores fiction and fantasy. So, the first piece is knowing what your individual child is interested in, passionate about and inspired by and looking for ways to feed that passion. That’s hard, because that may be different than what we as parents responded to. There have been plenty of times when I have thought, I can’t wait to share this–and then it didn’t work for my kids the same way it worked for me.

It also helps to look for what I call “stealth mode” activities, to support and underscore the connection between reading and pleasure.  These are reading related activities that can enrich a literary experience, such as: making a recipe from a book that you have read together, going to see a film, a play, a museum exhibit or listening to a piece of music that is inspired by a book that you have read.

We need to make sure we keep reading with our kids as much as possible, as often as possible, as late as possible. In my research, I found it extremely interesting to discover that reading skills and listening skills don’t converge until the eighth grade. So in fact just by virtue of that alone, we really should be reading to our kids at least through middle school if not beyond. By doing so we are asking them to stretch and we are able to engage parts of their imagination and their emotional response through things that they wouldn’t necessarily be doing in their own independent reading, when they are busy decoding and trying to put thoughts together through the reading process.

Other activities that work are reading with kids when they may not realize that they are being read to. For example when they are doing the dishes. You can say, “I just read this great thing in the paper, let me share this with you.” It sends the message that reading is part of life, and they are getting the value of being read to.

Audio books are a great way to listen to a story together on a car trip. There are a number of ways that we can be creative and crafty in inviting kids to read.


Mariah: I love the suggestions that you give to parents about setting up the physical environment in the home to encourage reading. Can you share some of those tips?

Emma: This goes back to the idea of keeping the association with reading warm and fuzzy for as long as possible. It is everything from creating a reading corner in the home if there is space to do so, to making sure that where kids do most of their reading has adequate lighting and minimal distractions, so that they can really lose themselves in the world of reading. I remember when I was a little girl, my greatest pleasure on a day when it was cold or wet and rainy, or if I was home sick from school, was to dig out The Phantom Tollbooth–it was like a tradition, it always had to be The Phantom Tollbooth–and curl up on the rug in front of the fire with pillows. This was my idea of heaven. It was very ritualistic. The idea is to create something that underscores the association between reading and pleasure and make sure that the environment fosters that.

In our house, we are surrounded by books in every room, which I think is great, because it sends a visual message to our kids about the value we place on books in our family.  Again, it’s about making books attractive and appealing–something that kids are drawn to. If what they are looking at on their bookshelf is a jumbled mess it is less likely to draw them in. If their library is attractively organized and can easily be navigated to find the thing that they most want to read in that moment, you are maximizing your chances of getting them to read something. It’s also good to rotate things and change the display up a little bit from time to time. For instance, at the holidays we take out Christmas books in their own basket which have been tucked away so that when they come out, it’s like a whole new library. It feels like we are reading them for the first time because we haven’t seen them for eleven months.


Mariah: What are your thoughts on the current debate in the literacy community about books vs. electronic media?

Emma: This is a huge debate, but I err on the side of “whatever gets us reading.” The digital world is here to stay.  It’s not going anywhere; it’s very much a part of our life and our children’s future, and, as such, it is its own kind of literacy – digital literacy. It’s a muscle that they need to have, and cultivate.

Personally, I love the tactile feeling of reading a book.  That is always going to be a preference for me.  The good news is that apparently kids feel the same way.  Every year, Scholastic does a survey called the Kids and Family Reading Report. What they’ve learned is that even though kids will always want to read online, no matter how much they read online, 85% of them say that they will always want to read real books as well. In fact, the latest studies indicate that digital reading has peaked and people are now returning to books in their traditional form as the preferred method of reading.

In addition to reading online, there are other ways to read as well–like audio books and graphic novels. It is always surprises me when people think that listening to audio books or reading graphic novels is not really reading. My response is, “Is Braille not really reading, just because you are not actually using your eyes to decode letters and words?” My understanding of reading is that it is integrating a story into your mind and heart. And not necessarily just fictional stories, but words and ideas in general. My son, who had vision issues growing up, found listening to audio books infinitely easier because he could relax his eyes and really engage his imagination.

Other kids are more visual learners, and they may respond to the imagery of a graphic novel, which informs them in ways that the symbolism of actual letters and words perhaps competes too much with. Again, it’s all about the individual child and what kind of learner they are, what their passions are – and letting that lead.


Mariah: How can parents best use television and the internet to their children’s advantage?

Emma: The key word is participation.  It is all about the degree to which we stay in touch. I realize it is hard for those of us who work in or out of the home. We all long for that moment when the kids are sitting quietly in front of the computer or television so that we can get on with something else. But, I think it is really important to stay in touch and know what your kids are reading and feeling so that you can make sure that as a parent it is in line with your family values and so that you can maintain a dialogue, and look for opportunities to cross-pollinate between those electronic experiences and the more “traditional” literary ones.

For example, my daughter loves Harry Potter—both the books and the movies, as well as games such as Minecraft that allow her to play in a Harry Potter environment. It is a very interactive experience for her. She plays the game or watches the movie, then she goes back to the books and reads them over and over again. For me it is a very valuable experience because it gives us an opportunity to talk about the ideas in the stories, the characters and what they are grappling with rather than her just being spoon-fed from the screen.


Mariah: Thank you so much for visiting Playful Learning!


Playful Learning: Emma Walton Hamilton

A faculty member of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, Emma teaches all forms of children’s book writing and serves as Director of the Children’s Literature Fellows program, as well as the annual Children’s Literature Conference. She is also the Executive Director of the Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP), an interdisciplinary writing program for middle and high school students.

Emma was a co-founder of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, and served as its co-Artistic Director and Director of Education and Programming for Young Audiences for 17 years. She is married to Actor/Director/Producer Stephen Hamilton, and they have two children – Sam, 19, and Hope, 12, both of whom are avid readers. To find out more about Emma, visit

In the Studio…

Playful Learning: Parent Discussion Series

Math Literature: Infinity and Me

By Mariah Bruehl,


Literature with math concepts is often the perfect way to start a math lesson. Literature naturally engages students and often initiates meaningful, rich discussions. Some discussions may focus on the math concept being presented, other discussions might focus more on connections and experiences with the story line, while still other may center on the illustrations and artistic techniques. Literature draws us in and keeps us together around a central theme but also lets us enter based on our personal experiences and interests. Therefore, math literature is a powerful, all reaching tool when sharing math concepts with our students. Often, we can reach most, if not all students with a powerful story.

Authors of math literature often also do a great job of personalizing difficult concepts. Kate Hosford has done just this in her book Infinity and Me. Her words along with Gabi Swiatkowska’s gorgeous illustrations personalize the concept of infinity. Uma, the main character, questions her friends and family members on how each person imagines infinity. The answers are varied and imaginative but also sweetly personal. Young readers will love to engage with this delightful story about a difficult, but now accessible concept.

After reading and discussing this book with your child, try writing an infinity poem:

  1. Brainstorm ideas about infinity including: (1) feelings, (2) images, (3) activities one might want to do and (4) wonderings or questions.
  2. Write a poem about the concept of infinity together to model writing to complete a sentence starter. Ask for ideas and show how to write these in sentence form.
  3. Using the brainstorming list, have your child or students write a poem of their own.
  4. Share finished poems with pairs or the whole class.

More to Explore…

  1. Draw a picture to share one of the ideas you presented in your poem. Look closely at the illustrations by Gabi Swiakowska for ideas.
  2. Visit Kate Hosford’s website and download the curriculum pack for more engaging activities.



Compare and Contrast: The Night Before Christmas

By Mariah Bruehl,


Merry Christmas To All, And To All A Good Book…

We have an abundance of Christmas books at our house. I love Christmas, I love books, perfect harmony! Of course, we have several versions of the classic Christmas poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. This poem, originally titled A Visit From St. Nicholas, has been told and retold thousands of times in just as many variations. It presents a perfect opportunity for a holiday literary exploration comparing and contrasting different versions. Choose three different Night Before Christmas Books, use the link above to the original poem, and our handy printable to investigate the similarities and differences. Your library should have a wonderful selection of Night Before Christmas books, with a variety of reading levels, any of them would be compatible with this activity. Here are a few suggestions to inspire your picks.


These books are notable because of their beautiful illustrations and because they stay true to the original poem.

  • The Night Before Christmas: Jan Brett is an outstanding illustrator, and her version of the book is stunning. The main and surrounding pictures engage the reader in the poem on many levels.
  • The Night Before Christmas Pop Up: Robert Sabuda is known for his amazing paper art in his pop up books, and this book is no exception. An older pop up book we own (shown in the picture above) is The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Michael Hague. You may be able to find this at your local library, my daughter loves pulling the tab to send Santa up the chimney! 
  • The Night Before Christmas: The Classic Edition: Illustrated by Charles Santore, this book is noteworthy because it has not changed the wording, and it also has a special fold out page.

If you are looking for something more unique, there are a plethora of books with distinctive twists on the original poem.

  • The Soldier’s Night Before Christmas: With thanks to those who protect us, the ending of this book seems perfect for our world today. “Happy Christmas, brave soldiers! May peace come to all!”
  • The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas: Those who know me know I love pirates. For the child in you, or your child, you just can’t go wrong with this swashbuckling book. 
  • The Knights Before Christmas: This book is new this year, and is simply adorable. Three knights, Brave Knight, Polite Knight, and of course Silent Knight, find their castle has an invader, Santa Clause!
  • The Cajun Night Before Christmas: This is a book from my childhood, gifted to me by dear family friends from Baton Rouge, telling the poem through a southern cultural lens. It is a part of The Night Before Christmas Series which includes versions such as a Teachers’, Racecar Driver’s, Alaskan, Hawaiian, Librarian’s, Nurse’s , Firefighter’s, Sailor’s, Irish, Cowboy, Gullah, and many more.

After investigating several books, try adding a digital spin to your exploration. I am a huge fan of the video creation site Animoto. You can sign up for a free trial on their website, and best of all, teachers can apply for a free subscription to Animoto Plus. I have used Animoto in the classroom, and my students loved creating projects with it. Animoto is so simple. You upload your pictures, add text, select music from their database, and the website does all the challenging work, producing it into a final video presentation. There is also an Animoto app available, which makes creating projects even easier since you can upload your pictures straight from your phone or tablet. Here is a sample Night Before Christmas video that I created.

I hope these activities add some fun holiday learning to your Christmas season. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Me: In Poetry, Song, and Art

By Mariah Bruehl,

MichelleTitleWhen I was a classroom teacher, one of the most relaxing, yet beneficial professional development opportunities I attended was a “Picture Book Read In.” After various speakers, such as a local librarian who had been on the Caldecott committee, teachers had an opportunity to peruse new picture books at their leisure. I was always able to discover new books that sparked new ideas and new lessons.

It seems like there is always a steady stream of amazing books being produced, and this year is certainly no exception. There are many exciting new picture books and three of these that caught my eye are autobiographies or biographies.  Aside from the interesting life stories, these books are especially attractive because they feature outstanding artwork, and they also focus on unique and diverse individuals in the fields of poetry, music, and art.  Picture books easily engage children in non-fiction text, and these books can easily integrate reading, writing, and the arts. The more connections children can make across domains, the more effective learning opportunities become.

Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess is about the life of poet e.e. cummings. My favorite aspect of this book is the creative way the words themselves are incorporated into the illustrations. I love the use of the font style and the way the poems are presented throughout the book. Also, the book includes a nice chronology at the end.

Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is an autobiography. This book will resonate with children because it takes place in modern times. Troy is 29 years old, and the book covers his accomplishments and musical drive as a young child. The watercolors and collage by Bryan Collier are amazing.

Draw What You See by Kathleen Benson is a biography of Benny Andrews and features his actual paintings as the illustrations. What a better way to introduce his life and his art to students than by using his artwork. The book also ends with an nice timeline, and a listing of each artwork including the title, medium (mostly oil on canvas are featured in this book), and date created.

With each book covering an individual from a different artistic talent, there are so many possibilities for activities after reading and discussing these books, all of which can be adapted for different age levels and abilities.

  • Write an autobiographical poem
  • Compose an autobiographical song
  • Paint a picture of an important moment in your life
  • Create a timeline of your life so far
  • Create an autobiographical collage

I have created a printable booklet to inspire some of the ideas listed above (click on the photo below to download). A quote of e.e. cummings that speaks to me is, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”.  Children thrive on expressing themselves and exploring what it means to be who they are. Poetry, song, and art are wonderful ways to delve into this. The booklet also has a chart to compare and contrast the individuals featured in these three books. An important comprehension skill with non-fiction reading is being able to locate and process factual information. Use of engaging texts, such as these picture books, is an excellent way to introduce and practice this skill in an interesting way for children.

Extending the reading of a book with supplemental experiences enhances children’s’ understanding as well, here are some links to use:

Me: In Poetry, Art, and Song

10 Books for New Kindergarteners

By Mariah Bruehl,

10 Books for New KindergartenersIs your child starting kindergarten soon?  Are you sobbing as you’re reading this?  Maybe your heart even aches a little.  Let’s face it—the transition into kindergarten is a big milestone for our children.

I had the privilege of teaching kindergarten for 8 years, but being on the other side was a very different experience.  This year, my daughter will be starting first grade (and yes, my heart still aches thinking about another school year), but I’m here to tell you that we survived the first few days of kindergarten.  Was it scary? Yes.  Was it hard to say goodbye? Yes.  Were there tears? A few.  However, we were fortunate enough to have THE BEST teacher we could have hoped for.  When the teacher tears up during kindergarten orientation and thanks you for sharing your children with her, it feels like you’ve won the lottery.

As a former kindergarten teacher, and now former kindergarten parent, I can tell you that the best advice I can give you is to have courage and be brave in front of your child.  If you are nervous, they will know.  If you have negative feelings about the transition, they will pick up on them.  Your child will follow your lead.  Don’t let them see you cry or worry.  Stay positive and tell them how amazing kindergarten will be, how much they will learn, and the new friends they will make.  

I have also found that the easiest way to introduce children to new experiences is through books.  Literature allows children to make connections to characters and talk about their fears and worries.  Books can validate our feelings.

As you prepare to send your kindergartener off into the world, take some together to read these books.  I promise they will help your child (and you) make it through the very first day… and maybe even the second day.

10 Books for New Kindergarteners


  1.  How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

What if a dinosaur came to school with you?  This book is a favorite in our house and always makes us giggle.  Besides being fun to read, it also allows children to think about how to (and how not to) behave when they are at school.    


  1. Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!  by Nancy Carlson

In this book, Henry can’t wait to start kindergarten.  He jumps out of bed, eats his breakfast, grabs his school supplies and has lots of questions for his mom.  But when he gets to school and sees how big it is, he starts to have second thoughts.  This is a perfect book to read with your child who may be hesitant to start school.


  1.  Timothy Goes to School by Rosemary Wells

Who doesn’t love Rosemary Wells?  Timothy is looking forward to his first day of school, but then he meets Claude who seems perfect in every way.  Timothy’s insecurity creeps in until he finds a new friend who feels the exact same way.  Do you have a child who is a little shy or has trouble fitting into new situations?  Introduce him to Timothy!


  1.  The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

If you don’t share any other book with your incoming kindergarten, please share this one!  Chester Raccoon does not want to go to school and leave his mother.  So she kisses his paw and tells him that when he feels sad, he can press his paw to his cheek and feel the warmth of her kiss.  Are you crying yet?  Believe me, you will.  If you are worried about separation anxiety, this will help ease the transition.  It ‘s also a springboard for coming up with your own goodbye routines.  Sniff, sniff.


  1.  Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

I still read this to 2nd and 3rd graders every year.   Wemberly worries about EVERYTHING from the crack in the living room wall to whether there would be enough cake at the party.  So when school starts, she has a whole new list of worries.  Read this book and ask your child what their worries are about school?


  1.  Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate

This book introduces your child to kindergarten and gives a behind the scenes look into what her teacher may be doing to get ready for the first day!  It’s also an alphabet book.


  1.  The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing

A must read as your child is settling into bed the night before his first day.  I won’t give it away, but the ending is adorable and will hit home for parents as well.  I used to read this to my kindergarten parents during parent orientation and usually needed to pass out a few tissues.


  1.  Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney

Another book to help with separation anxiety and a child’s fear of being dropped off and left at school.  In this story, little llama is excited to see his new classroom but has second thoughts when it’s time for mama to leave.  He’s worried she may not come back.   


  1.  Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt

I always buy my children a back to school book, and this is the one I gave to my daughter before starting kindergarten.  I love the review on Amazon: “For one brave boy, kindergarten isn’t just a grade – it’s a destination.”  My daughter was SO thrilled to start kindergarten, and I knew that it was the beginning of her lifelong journey through school.   Kindergarten is definitely an adventure into a whole new world, and this book takes that metaphor to a whole new level.    


  1.  First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg

Do you or your child already have that pit in your stomach?  Although this particular story is about a girl who is starting over at a new school, incoming kindergarteners will relate to having similar feelings of not knowing anyone.  The surprise ending will make you smile, and your child will realize that it’s not just children who experience the first day jitters.

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