history, humor, illustration, language arts

Book List: Wordplay Books

Wordy Birdy (Dragonfly Books)
Written by Tammi Sauer
Illustrated by Dave Mottram

For ages: 3-6
Some picture books feel like they work for children but are best appreciated by adults. Wordy Birdy may remind some childcare workers & educators of many of their students. First thing in the morning, she talks and continues until the book ends. Her friends’ reactions (Squirrel, Rabbit, Raccoon) will provide the most chuckles for adults with slight annoyance but accept that this is who Wordy Birdy is. It doesn’t help that the talkative bird likes to embellish her stories with unrealistic details. As much as she may get on their nerves sometimes, this trio is there to help when Birdy gets herself into some potential danger. A great book that acknowledges that silence is golden & friendship is essential.

Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words (Viking Books for Young Readers)
Written by Shelli R. Johannes
Illustrated by Mike Moran

For ages: 4-8
Theo is a TheSaurus, a dinosaur type known for their rich vocabulary. On his first day of school, he can’t help but refer to the snacks as “crudités,” lunch as a “midday repast,” and hide-and-seek as “a game of conceal and search.” Theo is aware that the words he uses are considered fancy and not ordinary, making him feel insecure. He worries that his classmates don’t like him, and it seems that Theo’s fear will be realized on his hatching day when none of his classmates show up for the party. Theo’s parents embrace him in a big, reminding their verbose child that he is an incredible little dinosaur. Then the doorbell rings, and his classmates are simply tardy. This book hits the social-emotional elements educators are always on the lookout for and will build vocabulary & spark your students’ desire to enrich their own.

A Walk in the Words (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written & Illustrated by Hudson Talbot

For ages: 4-8
If you are an educator, you have seen students aware of their reading struggles. Unfortunately, many of these students internalize these challenges as personal faults and become either hostile to learning or develop deep feelings of inadequacy. Author Hudson Talbot turns his childhood struggle with reading into the story of a little boy navigating a scary forest where trees are adorned with complicated sentences and vocabulary. Talbot’s greatest strength is the way his illustrations work so beautifully as metaphors for his struggles and growth. The book was very similar to older morality stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the metaphors are pretty obvious, but that’s needed for the intended audience. Talbot also includes a Slow Readers Hall of Fame in the end pages to remind struggling students some of our most brilliant minds faced the same difficulties as kids.

16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” (Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Lisa Rogers
Illustrated by Chuck Groenink

For ages: 4-8
Poetry is one art form that capitalism has been unable to sink its hooks into. As a result, it remains one of the purest forms of human expression. It is often overlooked for flashier, faster mediums. Lisa Rogers adores the writing of William Carlos Williams, and she can convey that to her readers through this history lesson/exploration of an incredibly famous poem. The poem comes as the finale, while Rogers details Williams’ life as a family doctor in the suburbs of northern New Jersey in the 1920s. Rogers also introduces Williams’ neighbor, Thaddeus Marshall, who grew a vegetable garden that Williams could spy from his window. The poet notices how Marshall’s vegetables help feed many people in their community, which starts a poem percolating in his mind. Our students are deprived of the magic of poetry, especially in elementary grades, where they need to experience how wordplay is a crucial piece of our creative development. If you are looking for a great introduction to a poetry unit, I don’t think you could do better than this picture book.

The Word Pirates (Neal Porter Books)
Written by Susan Cooper
Illustrated by Steven Kellogg

For ages: 4-8
The pirates that sail under the command of Captain Rottingbones hunger for one thing only, words. They have trained Bumblebirds that swoop down and steal from the best writers and books available to feast on. Some prefer aperitifs of words like “pop.” Other buccaneers desire to eat on big, filling words like “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Eventually, they do battle with a Word Wizard in New Zealand who doesn’t leave them adrift but teaches the scallywags how to make their own words rather than rely on stealing them. Steven Kellog is a tried & true legend in picture books. His illustrations feel familiar and perfectly suited for this silly story. Susan Cooper pens a tale that will undoubtedly entertain students. A great follow-up activity would be to have students design a filling meal with their favorite words to serve.

Digging For Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built ( Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Angela Burke Kunkel
Illustrated by Paola Escobar

For ages: 4-8
You have likely never heard of José Alberto Gutiérrez, but neither had I. He was a garbage collector living and working in Bogota, Colombia, who started to notice people throwing books in the trash. Jose began collecting the books he found, which became the driving force in his daily life, building his collection. The first book that connects with him is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Once his collection was large enough, Jose realized he wanted to share these beautiful texts with his community. So, in his working-class neighborhood, he builds a library named Paradise and gets to watch his neighbors get transported to the same worlds Jose experienced when he read the books. Paola Escobar’s illustrations do an extraordinary job of visualizing the experience of getting lost in a good book, feeling ensconced in a world different yet familiar to your own. I also love a book that highlights blue-collar/working-class people as also being intellectual, something I think is overlooked in extremely anti-intellectual cultures like the United States.

Noah Webster and His Words (Clarion Books)
Written by Jerri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

For ages: 6-9
Few people in history loved words as much as Noah Webster, so much that he developed the second most popular book to ever sell in the Western world, Webster’s Dictionary. From an early age, he was pretty clever, entering Yale at 15. Through this text, we learn he imagined a “second Declaration of Independence,” which would create a consistent spelling system for English in the United States. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, it was not uncommon to find some words with six or more spellings based on region or just the individual’s background. This could have easily been a dry, boring book. Still, it is Vincent Kirsch’s cartoonish illustrations & his creative choice of how to frame the words & pictures that elevate this into an entertaining read. Webster isn’t presented as a flawless saint; at one point, Kirsch inflates his head like a balloon on a page that talks about the scholar’s often pompous confidence. Because this is a book about dictionaries, many big words are used, and explanations on how to use & read these lexicons are provided. This is a fantastic example of how biographies for elementary students should be written.

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge)
Written by Jane Sutcliffe
Illustrated by John Shelley

For ages: 7-10
Children should be introduced to Shakespeare earlier in their education than in high school. Will’s Words is a book that can be that window into a world of art that shaped Western civilization. Author Jane Sutcliffe pulls a little meta-writing out and talks about how in writing a book about Shakespeare, you suddenly learn how many of our everyday words and phrases were invented/curated by him in his plays. “Too much of a good thing,” “household chores,” and “eyeball” are just some of the many examples of terms the playwright was the first to coin in his stories. Sutcliffe also includes the history of The Globe Theater and briefly touches on the many plays Shakespeare wrote and performed there. So if you are searching for an accessible text for upper elementary students to begin what will hopefully be a lifelong love of the Bard, Will’s Words might do the trick. 

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