“Postcards from Camp” Book Review

I remember going to Girl Scout camp in 4th grade, the first time I was away from home for a significant time. It was a week…but I swear it felt like at least a month! I wrote cards and letters to my parents almost every day. I gave my mom the complete scoop on the bunk drama and how the showers only had cold water. As a miserable 9 year old, my letters were long  like a Bronte novel with painful descriptions of every nook and cranny in the camp. This book brought me back to my days of camp and my earliest memories of writing. This conversational tale about a young boy sharing his camping experience with his dad through postcards, letters, and art. Mike hates camp and especially hates his bunk mates and homesickness radiates throughout the pages of the book. The father writes with encouragement to his son and even pokes a little fun at Mike’s overdramatic reaction to everything awful about camp. However a change overcomes Mike as camp becomes more familiar and his bunkmates go from villains to friends. He even says he wants to stay the entire summer next year.

The art work in this book is magnificent. Intended to look like hand-drawn postcards with block letters and large pencil lines, each post card reflects the emotion in each written conversation. In addition there is purposeful thought in making the postcards look real with authentic postage stamps that mimic the sentiment of the letter. There is a combination of typed font mixed with handwritten letters which keeps the written message visually appealing to the reader.

One of the best parts of this book are the envelopes that contain letters from Mike and his father. This interactive element makes the reader feel like they are receiving an actual letter in the mail! Unfolding each letter and seeing messages on all sides truly transforms this book into an experience. It reminds me of a scrapbook format with 3D memorabilia sprinkled throughout its pages. I am reminded of books like “The Jolly Postman” I read when I was a child, receiving letters from favorite fairytale creatures. These stories almost come to life with the turning of each page.

As a teacher I read this book and immediately thought of Vera B. Williams’ “Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea” which is also a story told through letters and postcards. However the interactive nature of having envelopes containing letters takes this book to another level. I think about how writing letters and communicating through mail was often someone’s earliest (and sometimes only) experience with writing. In an age when email, texts, tweets, and other forms of technology  it’s unfortunate that the beauty of receiving a hand written letter is lost. I think about ways to provide opportunities for students to write and receive letters and have a written conversation.

Recently students in my class sent letters to favorite authors asking questions about their craft and writing process. The shock and joy of receiving a response of favorite authors like Meg Cabot, Sarah Weeks, and Louis Sachar floored my students. The best part was how excited they were to keep the conversation going, and write them all back. Some students even sent in samples of their own writing for feedback. Often I will have students “pass notes” to each other as a way to discuss a topic in class. Writing down their thinking and passing it on to another requires students to think about clarity of their writing and respond quickly.

What are some other ways you have encouraged students to write letters? Who are they writing to?


“Stuck” Book Review

Most of the time I go to the library like I go to the grocery store. I have a very detailed and specific list of things to get. Often this limits my level of frustration and guarantees I will have the right books to read when I get home. However, a change of habit took place as I was searching the shelves of my local library. I was frustrated that the dewey decimal system had failed me and I came across this intriguing book, “Stuck” by Oliver Jeffers.

I’m not sure if it was the title or the cover illustration that pulled me in but I was definitely putting this book in my bag whether or not it was on my library list. Opening the book I immediately knew it was a perfect read. The inside page opens to hand-sketched drawings of various items including  birds, chairs, kites, ladders, and even whales.

After reading this book, these sketches made much more sense but there is a sense of whimsy that is introduced on these simple pages. It makes you want to know more about “Stuck”.

The story begins with a boy named Floyd (don’t you just love and hate that name?) who got his precious kite stuck in a tree. He tried many many things to get his kite unstuck but nothing worked. Floyd then decides the only option is to begin tossing various items into the tree, hoping this would release his kite. Shoes went into the tree, a cat, and somehow a ladder was even thrown into the mix. Still, no kite. The story continues as Floyd throws anything he can find to try and get his toy. The list of ridiculous items grows as the tree soon fills up with kitchen sinks, front doors, the milk man and even a large whale. Everything he throws in the tree just gets STUCK!

I couldn’t believe how much I personally enjoyed this book and even found myself giggling out loud at the illustrations. Olive Jeffers not only tells a predictable story using a simple problem but elevates it with his careful illustrations and color selections. The text of this story also really caught my attention as it looks like it is a handwritten book made just for the reader. As a teacher, I can see how young readers can get ideas about making their own books using their handwriting and personal illustrations. Jeffers carefully uses all-caps and large font to emphasize certain words and feelings throughout the book.

I also noticed that Jeffers used color in a particular way to express emotions for Floyd. The background of each page typically was a blank white canvas but select pages featured bold colored pages of blues and reds. The image below is when Floyd is feeling absolutely frustrated and resorts to getting a ladder, only to throw that into the tree as well.

There are many ways I could see this book being used in a writing classroom. For younger writers, there is such a strong connection between the illustrations and the text telling the story. Students could be able to play around with color to help emphasize emotions or times of day in their own stories. The plot of this story is quite simple and involves a relatively ordinary problem; a toy is stuck in a tree. However, Oliver Jeffers takes this simple problem and explodes it by having Floyd throw ridiculous things in the tree in hopes to retrieve his kite. Young writers could easily do the same as a way to practice developing plot and making a problem worse and worse.

This is a great read aloud book for students of a range of ages. I could definitely see using this book with my 5th graders to help them see examples of how books can be published, the importance of illustrations to convey meaning, and practicing plot development. Has anyone else read this book and used it with their students? What were your reactions?