Rob Scotton Explains His Inspiration for Splat the Cat Stories

What a pleasure it was for me to meet Rob Scotton at the Texas Book Festival last weekend.  This author from Rutland, England, loves to talk.  But I can assure you that each of us in the audience loved to listen–to his ideas and accent!  His picture books about Splat the Cat are very popular, causing a long book signing line at the festival.

Meet Splat the Cat

Inspiration #1

Listening to Rob speak, I especially found the “insider information” about his inspiration intriguing.  As a fellow writer working on 2 manuscripts of my own, I love hearing how the seeds of ideas get started.  I’ve found that my ideas come from everyday things that happen in life.  Anything can inspire.  Rob’s story is further proof of this.

Rob was running his lawnmower in his backyard one summer day when his eyes spotted this ugly beast on top of his fence. It had bald patches and a clipped ear.  It was his neighbor’s cat.  This particular cat had a habit of attacking Rob when he least expected it.  He kept his eye on the cat as he went back and forth with the lawnmower.  Suddenly, a gust of wind came and the cat teetered precariously.  It then hung in the air briefly before falling from the fence.  Rob thought to himself, “Surely this agile creature will land safely on his feet, as all cats do.”  But when the cat landed not so gracefully on its bum, he heard the word “SPLAT” in his head.  He immediately ran inside, lawn duties forgotten for the moment, and played with the idea of a character, Splat the Cat.

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat picture books

A key element for this artist was finding the look of Splat right from the start.  He needed a cat he could enjoy spending time writing stories.  Rob wanted to keep Splat simple.  As a child, Rob had practiced drawing characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto.  These shapes were simple and easy to practice with.  So he designed Splat’s rectangular body with his young audience in mind.

Splat’s rectangular body

And what could be funnier on a chunky body than long skinny “arms” and legs coming off it?

Splat’s skinny “arms” and legs

Next Rob played with various ideas for the eyes, and finally settled on the “wide-eyed” look of the circles close together. This style is similar to Russell the Sheep, a beloved character from his previous picture books.  He also had fun with Splat’s tail, which expresses the character’s mood.

Possible eyes for Splat–rejected

Put it all together, adding belly and tail.

Rob Scotton’s illustrations are created using Painter and Photoshop.  He even has a pressure-sensitive stylus and pad that allows him to create the brushstrokes for Splat’s amazing fur!

I encourage you to meet Splat now at your local library or bookstore.  Then this summer, as “back to school” rolls back around, revisit this story and the Back to School activities below with your child or students.

Inspiration #2

Rob Scotton’s latest book is just in time for Thanksgiving, Splat Says Thank You.  This idea has a totally different origin than the original Splat.

Rob was at a book signing and a little boy stood off to the side.  In between signings, this 6 year old kept asking him questions about his books.  It went something like this:

Boy: You wrote a Halloween Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Christmas Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Valentine Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Not really.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: Are you going to write a Thanksgiving Splat book?  You should.

And this got Rob thinking later.  How would Splat and Thanksgiving relate or link together at all?  Being from England, he tried to focus on the main theme of thankfulness.  What things are we all universally thankful for?  And that led him to thinking of friendship.  A light bulb went off as he realized he could write a Thanksgiving Splat book where Splat was thankful for his best friend, Seymour.  This would also be a great time to write the two friends’ backstory of how they met and why they’re such good friends.

Parents and Teachers

This writer’s inspiration is a great example for your own young authors.  Sharing the “behind the scenes” of how published authors get their ideas can encourage your child to look around with “author eyes.”  Settings like the lunchroom, playground, and their own backyard can spark an idea for a character, setting, or plot.

Leave a comment if you decide to check Splat out for yourself. 🙂

Rob Scotton’s Website:

Pirate Obsession, Perhaps?

I don’t know about your kids, but my best friend’s little ones are obsessed with pirates.  And have been for the last 2 years.  That’s saying a lot since the twins are 4 1/2 and their younger brother is 2 1/2 years old.  “Doubloons” and “Arrrggh” might even have been his first words!  Just to prove it, here are 2 adorable pictures taken on this very Halloween night of 2012.

It’s not just kids…my sister-in-law has been obsessed with pirates ever since Pirates of the Caribbean came out.  Wait, hers is actually a Johnny Depp obsession.  Never mind.

But really, I have to agree with Philip Yates, a local Austin author, who explains his own fascination with pirates and his inspiration for his two picture books, A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas and A Pirate’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

“Who didn’t dream of being a pirate when they were a kid? It’s a dream-come-true for a child. No parents hanging around, stay up as long as you wanted to, dig for buried treasure on the weekends, don’t worry about brushing your teeth, capture and burn ships, kidnap men and women and make them walk the plank. Look at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their overwhelming desire to be pirates. It’s the ultimate kid fantasy.”  [full interview found at]

Philip Yates at the Texas Book Festival
in Austin on Oct. 27, 2012.

By asking himself questions, Philip Yates created a new take on two well-loved Christmas poems.

“What would a pirate ask for at Christmas? Well, a plank, of course. How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Surely they would not be visited by St. Nicholas, no, not these robbers and murderers, unless he left coal in their stockings. The idea continued to haunt me until I came up with the solution that if pirates were to celebrate their own Christmas, they had to have their very own pirate Santa Claus and that’s when Sir Peggedy was born.”

This buccaneer spent the majority of his time researching pirate history, the parts of the ship, and more. “I also wanted the language to be authentic in every way, so that when you read it out loud, you would sound like a pirate.”

And every parent knows how important that is, especially on September 19th each year.

If pirates don’t float your boat, Philip’s humor will.  It’s no surprise that he actually got his start writing joke books.  After co-writing nearly 10 joke books in 8 years, he then wrote his debut picture book called 10 Little Mummies. This counting book is jam-packed with silly explorations inspired by his mummy riddles:

“What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you? You roll them right back.”
“What kind of underwear do mummies wear? Fruit of the Tomb.”
[full interview at]

Always on the lookout for ideas around him, Philip tells of the inspiration for his next picture book.  It’s based on a seemingly irreverent statement he overhead at an Austin public library.

“A little girl came into the library once and told her mom, ‘I love you so much I want to throw up.’ I thought this was hilarious and touching because a moment later the girl hugged her mom and added, ‘Throw up my arms and hug you and kiss you.’ This later became a picture book about how much a child can love a parent or guardian.”

You know the drill.  Halloween’s over now, so Christmas will soon be upon us (if not already in a store near you). So get out there and purchase two special pirate poem Christmas books for your own buccaneers.  I already got my autographed copy for my best friend’s 3 pirates.

Author Interview Links:

UN-Happy Halloween for Author stuck in Austin

It was such a pleasure to meet and listen to Tad Hills this weekend at the Texas Book Festival. I was sad to see on his Facebook page after the festival:“Stuck in Austin TX for I don’t know how long. My only other option at this point is to fly to Chattanooga then train to Richmond and sail up the coast to Brooklyn.”

He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but Hurricane Sandy has stranded him here in Austin. This is especially sad since he might miss Halloween, his favorite holiday, with his kids. Each year he designs elaborate costumes for them. Visit his website to view masterpieces ranging from buildings (Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower) to a furry monster that has iPhones playing a moving and blinking eyeballs video loop!

UPDATE: On 10/30 at 10:45 a.m. Eastern, Tad Hills posted: “They [My wife and kids] are fine. We are very lucky. They are safe and the house is dry.  But surrounded by so much damage.” 

From costumes to acting, sculpting, or writing and illustrating, this man is an all-around artist who views each of these expressions similarly. He feels you create each in a similar way, adding and cutting to shape the end product.  This author/illustrator began writing touch and feel board books, but is best known for his Duck and Goose picture books, as well as his latest two stories about a dog named Rocket who learns to read and write.



Tad Hills shows how to draw Duck at the Texas Book Festival.
I was in the front row and he was 3 feet from me!


Tad Hills at the Texas Book Festival introducing his latest Rocket story, Rocket Writes a Story.

In Rocket Writes a Story, I was immediately delighted with the authenticity of the writing process Rocket goes through.  For parents, this book provides ideas of your role in helping your child love writing: encourage him; give her time and space for inspiration; listen as he reads aloud his progress; ask her questions. I would add to this list–ask her tell you stories verbally. “Storytelling” is a great pre-writing activity because kids love to talk. Revising as you go is simple when no paper or pencil is involved.  As a former teacher, I would have loved to share this story as a model for how authors really write. Writing a story is not a canned task where you:

1) sit down with paper and pencil,

2) write a good story, and

3) get up and say VOILA!

It is a process that is exciting and frustrating, fast and slow all at different stages. You need time, space, inspiration, and support from others. My favorite lines in the book are:

“He wrote words down and crossed words out.  When things were going well, he wagged his tail.  When he didn’t know what to write, he growled.”

And writing impacts those around us. Rocket experiences each of these elements on his writing journey.

Writing Mini-lesson using Children’s Literature:

In the classroom, have students brainstorm the things they do and need in order to write a story. List these ideas on chart paper. Make sure they don’t leave anything out. Then read Rocket Writes a Story. Have students list the things Rocket used and did in his writing process. Compare the two lists. “Can you add any of his tools to your process?” This should facilitate an encouraging discussion about ideas and their development. Then, as a fun treat, show them the picture of the real Rocket that inspired Tad Hills (


Personally, this story strikes a chord because it’s been about a year now of me nursing 2 manuscripts of my own. My two ideas (a fairy tale and a dog detective story) look radically different than when I began.  I, too, have needed breaks, inspiration, peers, encouragement and feedback, time and space.  And of course, my great dogs also originally inspired me.

I hope you’ll take time to introduce Rocket to your children or students. He’s a model reader and writer!

Author Interview Links:

Back with a Bang

I’ve just returned from the Texas Book Festival and I am pumped up!  This free event is located on and around the capitol building in downtown Austin.  While there, I got to meet some very cool children’s book authors.  I was even able to ask them, one-on-one, a few questions I have as a new writer with my own manuscript in the works.  So, for the last few hours I have been singing the refrain “Now I’ve had the time of my life.”  And that’s when I thought of you.  I’d love to share some insights these authors revealed about their characters and inspiration.  As an avid reader, those details further endear to me a story or character I already love.

The next four posts for this week (and I promise to do my best to get them out this week while it’s fresh on my mind) are: DRUMROLL, please…………….

Tad Hills, author of Rocket the Dog stories

Philip Yates, author of 2 pirate Christmas-themed books

Barney Saltzberg, author of books for pre-school children

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat books

Left to right: Moderator, Suzanne Wofford; Author, Tad Hills; Author, Philip Yates; Author, Barney Saltzberg; Author, Rob Scotton

More photos and stories to come–hope you’ll join me.

Drawing Conclusions

Helping Your Child “Read between the lines”
to Increase Comprehension

Starting in kindergarten, your child is expected to make inferences and draw conclusions about stories he reads.  He must also be able to use textual evidence to support understanding of fiction elements such as plot, author’s purpose, making predictions, fact and opinion, characters, setting, problem and solution, cause and effect, etc…. Similar expectations apply when reading nonfiction.

If this sounds like a lot, never fear.  I’m going to make it fun and easy for you…even do all the legwork for you.  Whether you’re a parent or teacher, I’ve chosen a great dog book to get you started.

Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman Cooks)
Illustrated by Diane deGroat
Published 2011

This story is told from Charlie’s point of view.  He’s a Basset Hound that thinks he is pretty important on this ranch.  His best friend is Suzie, but she’s just not much help in Charlie’s opinion.  For your child, the fun will lie in picking up on clues and drawing conclusions that prove Charlie has it all backwards.  The pictures are key to understanding the humor and your child will love being in on the secret!


Before reading:
Before you and your child dive into this book, have him look at the front cover.  What do you think this book will be about? What other animals might we see on a ranch?  What do you think a dog does on a ranch?  What do you think might happen to Charlie in this story?

If the child is in kindergarten or first grade, have her take a “picture walk” of the book.  This means she leafs through the pages WITHOUT reading, just looking at the pictures briefly.  This helps her anticipate what to expect in the story.  This also aids in decoding phonics and recalling related sight words.

During reading:
Choose as many, or as few, of these to discuss with your child as you’d like.

  1. When Charlie introduces himself and Suzie, he describes their looks.  Does he wish he looked like her?  What words clue you in to how he feels about his looks?  What do you think “unfortunately” means?  What does he mean by “hold it against her?”
    “Oh, hello. My name is Charlie. This is Suzie.  She’s my best friend.  We sure don’t look much alike, do we? Suzie, unfortunately, doesn’t have the paws I have. Or the droopy eyes.  Or the floppy skin. Or…the big dangly ears. I try not to hold that against her.”
  2. How does Charlie feel about getting up early?  Point to the words that give you the clue he wants to keep sleeping.  Does Suzie seem to like getting up early?
    “The first thing we do every day is get out of bed early. Too early. Dark early. I’d better go wake up Suzie. She’s never been much of a morning dog. [Suzie is at door running with smile while Charlie is in bed, with one eye open, one shut.]  Well, I guess she was a morning dog for once. First time for everything.”
  3. “The next thing I have to do is chase Daisy the cow out of the yard.  Some cows never listen.” [Suzie is in corner of picture staring at cow, cow staring back.]  Suzie barks and the cow leaves.  Charlie is seen in window.  “Well…I guess I’ll let Suzie go ahead and do it this time.  I like to give her a chance to shine every now and then.  It’s the kind of dog I am.”
    This is the second time Charlie has decided to go ahead and let Suzie do his job.  Do you think he normally does it himself?  Why or why not?  What does Charlie mean by give Suzie a “chance to shine?”  Will she glow or look brighter like the sun?  How do you know?
  4. When Charlie and Suzie sniff the front porch to get rid of critters, do his words match the picture?
  5. “Mama loves her garden. I lend a hand” [nap in grass on back while Suzie is planting radishes].  What is Charlie doing to lend a hand?  Who is really helping while he naps?
  6. There are cattle to round up and Charlie is in the jeep while Suzie is running and actually rounding up the cattle.  Who’s doing more work rounding up the cattle?
  7. There are fences to fix.  Charlie sleeps while Suzie holds tools. Who’s doing more work fixing fences?  Do you see a pattern here?  Which character REALLY is a ranch dog?  What would you call Charlie…a lazy dog!
  8. For lunch and naptime, Charlie claims he is only stopping because he doesn’t want Suzie to be alone.  Do Charlie’s words match the picture? Does Suzie look lonely without Charlie? What two things does Charlie seem to really like to do? (eat and sleep)
  9. At the end of the story, Charlie wakes up and everyone is gone, out working.  He hears cows, sees Daisy eating the garden, and barks to get her to leave.   “Good thing I was here.”  How does Charlie save the day?

 After reading
Do you remember your predictions before we read this story?  Was the book about _________ like you guessed?  Did we see any of the animals you predicted? What jobs can a dog help with on a ranch?  What did Charlie spend most of his time doing in this story?  Was he ever any help?  Do you think Suzie minds working hard?  What clue from the story makes you think that?

Be sure to scroll down to watch an actual video with your child of Charlie and the Pioneer Woman.

After reading the story, have students help you:

  • list on chart paper all the “truths” about Charlie, despite what he may think, or
  • draw a Venn Diagram—one circle lists How Charlie Sees Himself; the other circle lists Truths about Charlie, or
  • create a t-chart—on the left, the child states his inference; on the right, he provides the corresponding evidence from the text or pictures that proves his conclusion, or
  • compare the story with the real-life video about Charlie. (literary nonfiction) Scroll down to see the YouTube link or visit, or
  • list on chart paper the following figures of speech and have students infer what the text really means (literal vs. figurative meanings): “give a chance to shine” not really glowing like the sun; “lend a hand”  not giving your hand away for someone to borrow; “hold it against her” hold it up to her fur?

See the REAL Charlie on his ranch!

I hope this helps your child more fully enjoy a good story.  Remember, good readers are critical thinkers who ask themselves questions about the text as they read each page.  Then they strive to answer those questions using clues from the pictures, text, own past experience, etc…  That is called reading comprehension!

Dog Files: ‘Rooms To Go’ Must Stay

Over the years my husband and I have toyed with the idea of getting rid of our cheap Rooms To Go coffee and end tables.  They are huge and very marked up.  Yesterday I was sitting on the couch, my feet propped up on the wobbly wood of the coffee table (as is my habit–which might explain all the marks on it).

Bear came, sat beside me, and propped himself on the table, too.  It seems this piece of furniture is just too practical for our family to get rid of!

Hot Off the Press: Zero the Hero

More Math MAYhem…
The test of a story is this: Can it be read over and over and still bring insight and entertainment to its audience?  If so, then it is good literature, no matter what the age or genre.  For parents, this means your child asks you to read it to you so many times that you about have it memorized!  For teachers, this means the kids love the picture book you used in your mini-lesson in September, and you see potential to re-read parts of the book to support other subjects throughout the year.  This can save time while providing meaningful connections and common prior knowledge to build upon.

With this in mind, I’d recommend this next book hot off the presses in 2012 for your personal or classroom collection.  Please refer to my “teachable moment” ideas below and adapt them to the classroom or home.

Zero the Hero

by Joan Holub
Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Price new $16.99

Age Range
With adult interaction: 5-8 years old (grades Kindergarten-2nd)
Independent reading:  8-10 years old (grades 3rd -4th)
Ideal for year-long teacher mini-lessons: 2nd and 3rd grades

This entertaining book revolves around a comic book kind of hero with high-action illustrations and captions to accompany (and even add further humor) to the text of the story.  It is a great underdog story that shows the value of the individual (and teaches some GREAT math ideas).  The solution to this tale involves an unpredictable group of characters that march in with their own layer of humor and teachable moments.

Teachable Moments (Note: Text from actual story is in quotation marks.)

Who are some of the heroes in your life: real and fiction?  What do you admire about them?  In what ways are you like them and in what ways are you different?  How can you be seen as someone else’s hero?  This could also tie in to Social Studies when you study community, leadership, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, etc…

Synonyms: Search for all the words that mean the same as “zero” in this story: nothing,

Place value prompt: Zero’s spot in a number makes a big difference.  What would happen without him?  Brainstorm places that would crumble into disorder: banks, maps, street signs, grocery stores, books, etc…

Making Connections:  What other story has a similar character? Problem? (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is one that immediately came to my mind, but there are MANY that have this same underdog theme.)

Setting: Does this story have a setting (place, time)?  What would happen if these numbers lived in a big city?  Or out in the country?

Plot: What was the problem?  Solution?  Can you think of a different way to solve the problem and end the story?

Character feelings: How did Zero feel when _______ happened?  What clues (words, actions, body language) made you think he felt that way?

Reflect on Our Choices: put downs or name-calling like “Zero”; bullies; including versus excluding.  Can you connect with how Zero felt?  Have you ever seen someone being treated this way?  You’re a kid…what can YOU do about it?  (Ask them to come play with you and walk away with them.  Tell an adult if it continues.)

I’ve done a great demonstration with an apple when discussing this topic of name-calling.

  1. Take a red apple and tell students this apple has skin on the outside, just like us.  Review what name-calling is and how it feels.
  2. Drop the apple on the floor once, saying something age-appropriate like “Someone just said my glasses looked dumb.”
  3. Then drop it again  “Someone just told me they hated my haircut.”
  4. Repeat about 10 times.
  5. Have kids look at apple.  It should look pretty much the same as it did before the drops (in other words, don’t throw it to the ground with all your might).
  6. Then cut it open and show the kids the brown and tell them that’s bruising.  You couldn’t see it from the outside, and sometimes we can’t see with our eyes how people really feel on the inside.

I also found a great website that ranges in simple topics to more complex topics like cliques, stress, excluding, getting out of bad relationships, etc…

Counting (or natural) numbers vs. whole numbers (The wholes are just the naturals with zero thrown in.): “left out of counting games” (compare to Rudolph story); can’t count a zero number of things; “In order to count, he had to stand in shadow of others more glamorous than he was.”

Place value: Zero’s spot in a number makes a big difference.  What would happen without him?  Brainstorm places that would crumble into disorder: banks, maps, street signs, grocery stores, books, etc…  In this story, sums need Zero because of place value: 5 + 2 + 3 = 1??  Also can’t round numbers without zero.

Odd and Even Numbers: How does the digit zero affect these types of numbers?  List a bunch of odd numbers.  Then take out the zero.  What do they turn into?  List a bunch of even numbers.  Then take out the zero.  What do they turn into?  “Odd numbers felt so ODD without zero.” Even numbers miss him too.

Properties of Addition (
Commutative property: When two numbers are added, the sum is the same regardless of the order of the addends. For example 4 + 2 = 2 + 4 Zero tries to go first, but it doesn’t change anything.
Additive Identity Property: The sum of any number and zero is the original number. For example 5 + 0 = 5. How did this make him feel? “When it came to addition, he was virtually invisible.  Other numbers seemed to pass right through him.  Almost like magic. ‘This is getting embarrassing.’  ‘I got nothin.’”

Properties of Subtraction:
Identity: Same as Additive identity. 0+(-N) = -N , where N is positive.
“The same thing happened with subtraction.  In their frustration, some numbers were unkind.”

Properties of Division:  Website has videos, too!
Divisive Identity: Any number divided by 1 will stay same. 14 ÷ 1 = 1
Zero property of division: The zero property of division have two rules. Rule1– If you divide zero by any number the answer will be zero. You have nothing to divide. Rule2– If any number is divided by zero, then the problem cannot be solved. You cannot divide by nothing.
“Turns out, Zero stunk even more at division.  So badly in fact that other numbers simply refused to be divided by him at all.”

Properties of Multiplication:
Commutative property:  You can multiply two numbers in any order and the product will be the same. Example 4 x 3 = 12 and 3 x 4  = 12
Property of zero: any number multiplied by zero will be zero. The number can be in any order. 12 x 0 = 0       6 x 0 = 0
“Still his belief in his wonderfulness persisted. Then one day, during multiplication, it was discovered that any number times Zero equals—you guessed it!-Zero. Fearing extinction, the others ran from him.  Who could blame them? A real superhero wouldn’t multiply his friends into nothingness.  That’s the kind of stuff only an evil villain would do.  Could it be that he wasn’t a hero at all? The thought gave Zero a hollow feeling inside.  He rolled away.”

Roman Numerals: The Roman soldiers take them to the Emperor.  X (ten) looks like x; V (five) = V
Discuss differences, advantages and disadvantages of each. “We could teach you math using the ones, tens, hundreds.”—say the digits. “We don’t do math.  We just count.”—say the Roman numerals.  Roman Numeral humor 8= VIII “So it takes four of you to do my job?”

Dog Files: When I grow up I want to be a DOG!

And I’d like to be one of these lucky dogs.  What a life!

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I will say no more.

Math MAYhem

Poems, riddles, and superheroes, oh my! Are we talking about math? May is here and I have several books to keep that child or student of yours engaged these last few weeks of school and into the summer.

The Problem with “Story Problems”
You remember those “story problems” we had to do as kids, don’t you? Most people I’ve talked to have not-so-fond memories of those from their textbooks. And we were especially thankful there were only 1 or 2 at the end of the lesson. Some of our teachers would even skip them altogether. Great, right? But as adults, how many of you find that most of life’s “real world math” is never presented in a one-step problem? And all the math problems I encountered today didn’t use the exact same strategy or algorithm that I just learned this morning. Our kids today deserve, in fact NEED, to embrace real-life problem solving, not shudder at the thought. Need proof? Compare Round Rock Independent School District’s (RRISD’s) expectations for Mathematical Problem Solving in the following grades. Compare/contrast the expectations for kindergarten, 2nd and 5th grades.

K.13A Identify mathematics in everyday situations.                                           2.12A Identify the mathematics in everyday situations. 5.14A Identify the mathematics in everyday situations.
K.13B Solve problems with guidance that incorporates the processes of understanding the problem, making a plan, carrying out the plan, and evaluating the solution for reasonableness. 2.12B Solve problems with guidance that incorporates the processes of understanding the problem, making a plan, carrying out the plan, and evaluating the solution for reasonableness. 5.14B Solve problems that incorporate understanding the problem, making a plan, carrying out the plan, and evaluating the solution for reasonableness. 
K.13C Select or develop an appropriate problem-solving strategy including drawing a picture, looking for a pattern, that incorporates the processes of understanding the problem, making a plan, carrying out the plan, and evaluating the solution for reasonableness. 2.12C Select or develop an appropriate problem-solving plan or strategy including drawing a picture, looking for a pattern, systematic guessing and checking, or acting it out in order to solve a problem. 5.14C Select or develop an appropriate problem-solving plan or strategy, including drawing a picture, looking for a pattern, systematic guessing and checking, acting it out, making a table, working a simpler problem,  or working backwards to solve a problem.
K.13D Use tools such as real objects manipulatives, and technology to solve problems. 2.12D Use tools such as real objects, manipulatives, and technology to solve problems. 5.14D Use tools such as real objects, manipulatives, and technology to solve problems.
K.14A Communicate mathematical ideas using objects, words, pictures, numbers and technology. 2.13A Explain and record observations using objects, words, pictures, numbers, and technology. 5.15A Explain and record observations using objects, words, pictures, numbers, and technology. 
K.14B Relate everyday language to mathematical language and symbols. 2.13B Relate informal language to mathematical language and symbols.   5.15B Relate informal language to mathematical language and symbols. 
K.15 Justify his or her thinking using objects, words, pictures, numbers, and technology. 2.14 Justify his or her thinking using objects, words, pictures, numbers, and technology. 5.16B Justify why an answer is reasonable and explain the solution process. 
    5.16A Make generalizations from patterns or sets of examples and nonexamples.

I’ve highlighted the few differences. Obviously the difficulty of problems increases each year, but the bottom line is the same: Your child needs to know how to confidently UNDERSTAND a problem, make a PLAN, and SOLVE it using an appropriate strategy that includes checking for reasonableness.

The Problem
Kindergartners love to count on their fingers, or count by ones to solve a problem. It’s necessary, and even cute, because they haven’t learned many other strategies yet. But when your 5th grader, who HAS learned a variety of strategies, counts on her fingers (under the desk to remain unseen, of course), it’s more worrisome than cute. But the reality is this is actually quite common when we teach strategies, but don’t give kids PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE in school and at home to get comfortable with these other ways of thinking. They’re just more comfortable with their trusty, tried-and-true fingers.

Fingers aren’t the only culprit, lest you thought you were off the hook. I’ve also seen kids grab onto other strategies like tally marks, for example. “Sue has 16 cupcakes. John has 10. How many cupcakes do they have altogether?” So a student draws out 26 tally marks and tries to count each one, maybe accidentally double-counting a tally, maybe not. But when they do this with the numbers 62 and 16, your mouth drops as a teacher. “Why didn’t he draw base ten blocks at least, or use a number sentence?” we think to ourselves, feeling a sense of defeat.

The Solution
Once kids learn a strategy that makes sense (counting on fingers, or maybe a step beyond that like tally marks) they try to apply THAT SAME strategy to fit any and every problem after that. And this simply won’t work. They must have a tool belt full of a variety of strategies, understand which kind of problem calls for which types of possible strategies, and then have the confidence to actually choose and use a reasonable one. If this all sounds a little overwhelming to you, don’t worry. Math is all around your child in everyday situations. As a parent, you can use these teachable moments with just a little help from a great author and mathematician. 

Child’s Natural Curiosity + Greg Tang =MATHEMAGIC  

I’ve broken down two of his books for you, so you can decide which book is best for your child. This is also a great gift idea for your child’s teacher because we are always looking for engaging ways to bring the real world of math into our classrooms.

The Grapes of Math  Math for All Seasons

by Greg Tang, Illustrated by Harry Briggs

Ages 5-10 (Problems have larger numbers) Ages 5-8
Published 2001 Published 2002
  • Teaches problem solving through math poems and illustrations.
  • Aims to transition kids from counting to arithmetic.
  • Challenges them to think through problems and see multiple strategies. This critical thinking and ability to see a variety of strategies is expected in school as early as kindergarten.
Topics:Using math riddles, each page presents an everyday math situation that needs a solution. But mathematicians are often given a warning: “Please don’t count them, it’s too slow, this hot pie was made to go. ” or hint to guide them to see differently: “Instead of seeing groups of threes, count by fives and it’s a breeze.”Strategies taught:multiply and then subtract or add (multi step), find convenient sums, multiplication as fast addition by grouping, making tens, organize info by looking for patterns and symmetry. It also introduces great vocabulary for this age group. To find one answer, you much “look askew”.

For many ages it’s tempting to count one-by-one. Don’t be so surprised to see your 5thgrader counting a group of objects this way. Sometimes they just lack the confidence to try a different way. My dad always said “Work smarter, not harder.” This book aims to get students comfortable with a variety of strategies that they’ve probably already been taught, but have little experience using in real world situations. As their confidence soars, they’ll learn how to apply these to other situations.

Topics:Using poems about annual events in the life a child, each page presents an everyday math situation that needs a solution. Within each poem, the author provides a challenge to see things differently. When presented with 3 rows of 3 chicken eggs, the question is “How many have hatched?” Left alone, a child will often choose to count one at a time, even when other strategies have been taught in school. This poem provides the scaffolding for the strategy “subtract to add” by saying “to quickly count this chirping batch, subtract the one that’s yet to hatch” (3,6,9, minus the 1 hatched egg = 8).Strategies taught:Smarter ways to group like making tens or skip counting, doubling, subtract to add, spot patterns and symmetries, think creatively. Answer key in back explains the smarter way to group versus just counting. With small amounts, kids would rather count. But as amounts get larger, this is a disaster. Learn smarter strategies using this book and they’ll be on their way to bigger and better things in no time!

To the classroom teacher:I’d introduce one poem (problem) a month on chart paper and have students share their strategies with the class. My students gained the confidence to try a different strategy when they saw a classmate try it and heard them explain their thinking. The poems fit nicely with various holidays and special events each month such as spring and new life, rainy April, Easter, summer ice cream, spring butterflies metamorphosis, cutting grass, fireworks in July, maize/corn in field, acorns, Halloween, fall leaves change, snowflakes, snowmen, holiday presents and gingerbread, new year.

Next up… Zero the Hero.

Unlike most numbers, Zero believed himself to be a hero. He just needed a chance to prove it.  But Zero’s belief in himself didn’t count for much when it came to fitting in. 

Find out how this mathematical Rudolph-like story can hook your child and enhance his or her learning in my next post.

Cats and Cockroaches?

Author Spotlight: Carmen Agra Deedy
According to her book jacket bio, Carmen was born in Havana, Cuba.

She came to the United States as a refugee and like most immigrants sees the world from multiple perspectives.  Deedy has performed in many prestigious venues, but children are her favorite audience.

This is evident in the wide age range of audiences targeted by her two books below: a primary grade picture book, and an upper elementary Dickens-like tale.

As a primary grade teacher, I got the pleasure of using great children’s literature to teach all subjects to my second graders.  Round Rock ISD has few adopted textbooks, so good literature provides a platform for lessons in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.  During the spring unit on Theme & Genre, I always enjoyed reading this delightful folktale to them:

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale
By Carmen Agra Deedy; Illustrated by Michael Austin
Price New $4.99

Age Range
With parental interaction: 5-8 years old (grades K-2nd)
Independent reading: 8-10 years old (grades 2nd-4th)

You read that right…beautiful cockroach! This story encourages great conversation about what makes a good companion, as Martina searches for a husband.  You’ll be shocked and enlightened as you read about her abuela’s (grandmother’s) wise advice on how to test someone’s character.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright; Illustrated by Barry Moser
Price New $16.95

Age Range
Independent reading: 8-12 years old (grades 3rd-6th)

I got this at the library last week and finished it in 2 sittings.  The setting and characters are inspired by the authors’ love of Charles Dickens, so I was worried I might miss some of the meaning since I’ve only read a few of his works.  But a Cybil Award reviewer stated it best:   “Charles Dickens has an important supporting role and there are abundant literary allusions and though these may be lost on some younger readers, we believe they will remember and enjoy them again in later life.”

You can certainly read this book with no knowledge of Dickens and still enjoy the rich language, tongue and cheek humor, and memorable characters.  The plot is lively and intriguing.  Each character’s distinct voice provides a wonderful depth to a book that, at first glance, might seem like just a cute talking-animal tale.

My favorite scene (at least that I can reveal without spoiling the plot) occurs in Chapter 6 during a fascinating encounter between a cat and mouse.  After capturing the mouse, the main character Skilley spits him out onto the stone floor.

He then nudges the mouse, whispering, “Run…”  After a pause, in which the mouse lay as still as if he were dead, eyes tightly shut, the cat asks, “What’s wrong with you?  Why don’t you run away?”

To this the mouse replies, “What’s wrong with me?  I’m behaving as I ought in this situation.  What’s wrong with you?”

This begins the unusual and humorous relationship between two fascinating characters, Skilley and Pip.  There also 2 very rich scenes about apologies and forgiveness.  The authors weave these very naturally into the story and give the reader great insight into friendships and the need to understand the tough truths about ourselves sometimes.  This title is on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list for 2012-2013.  For a list of all current nominees for 2012-2013