Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reading: Owen by Kevin Henkes (Picture Book)

Every time I visited the library at Webster Elementary School in first grade, I knew exactly where I would find it: the second shelf in the front, always at the end of the row, its blue spine glistening in the fluorescent lights of a public school library.  The book was Owen by Kevin Henkes, and although the story never changed from week to week, I was always amused by the cute little mouse and the obsession he had with his favorite fuzzy yellow blanket.  I credit Owen and his blanket for imprinting a love of literacy into my heart, so I was delighted (and eager) when I found this book waiting for me in the library at Captain John Smith School, this time on the bottom shelf, somewhere in the middle, its blue spine glistening in the fluorescent lights of a public school library.  But this time, I read the book with a critical eye as a graduate student and elementary school teacher, yet still with the same joy that I had when I first devoured it, week after week, as a student in Mrs. Keister's class.

Like all of the books written by Kevin Henkes, Owen takes readers to a magical, mousical world brimming with new and challenging vocabulary, including absolutely wonderful, positively perfect, and especially terrific all in the same sentence!  Not only will many of these words be new to young listeners, but this use of repetitive meaning helps students to build early skills, such as learning how to use context clues or understanding synonyms.  Children might not have the names for those skills yet, but they will have experiences with rich language through Kevin's use of language.  (Note: I like to think that we're on a first name basis, as I've been a fan since the young age of six.)  From a teaching standpoint, I also find that there are many activities embedded into this book for learners of all ages!  There are many opportunities for young students to make connections, whether it be thinking about something that they treasure in the same way that Owen treasures his own fuzzy yellow blanket or by the teacher allowing his/her students to smell a sample of vinegar so that they can understand just why Owen had to switch his favorite corner of the blanket anyway!  There are opportunities for students to make logical predictions, and of course, Owen tells a clear story easy for young readers to picture sequence or older readers to write and sequence.  Owen is also a prime choice for teaching older students to write stories.  It has a clear plot, rich dialogue, and emotional characters.  While I do think that emulating a story like Owen is not an easy task (as evidenced by this video), the story that it tells, and the way in which it tells the story, can teach students about elements seen in strong story-telling. 

As I think back to my own enjoyment of Owen as a child, I instantly remember being captivated by the pictures.  Each page is a scavenger hunt for children and adults.  Kevin Henkes always creates the world of his mice to mimc the beauty in the human world.  I enjoy the bright colors present in Owen, the tall sunflowers in his backyard, the leaking dryer in the basement, the handmade drawings dotting the wall of Owen's bedroom (similar to the drawings a person might see on the walls of a kindergarten classroom), the copy of Edvard Munch's famous Scream painting hanging in the family room (and featuring a mouse screamer, of course), and the bright clothing worn by Owen's mother.  (Where does she get her clothes?)  

Each page is a scavenger hunt.

Finally, one of the greatest aspects about Owen is that it teaches children that it's okay to hold on to special treasures.  Even Mrs. Tweezers, the nosy neighbor next-door, reveals that she once had a fuzzy blanket, too (and still carries its remnant with her).  Children that are just beginning school often have to let go of a lot - their security at home, eating lunch at home, the training wheels on their bikes, nap time after snacks, their favorite fuzzy yellow blankets.  Sometimes, it's exciting to let go!  But other times, clinging on to their favorite blankets, or whatever it may be, makes them feel safe in a world that's always changing.  Owen shows that it's okay to hold on.  The way that Owen cherishes his own yellow blanket is the way that I will forever cherish Owen: an absolutely wonderful, positively perfect, and especially terrific book.

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