Picture book author recommendation – Kathy Henderson 2 of 3 – Lugalbanda, with resources

I’m glad I’ve never been asked to write a children’s version of a five-thousand-year-old story – the oldest written (in cuneiform) story in the world, in fact.  Being based on archaeological fragments, which amount to a story that comes to an end without a sense of completion, it must have been a great challenge for Kathy Henderson to impose a narrative sense without distorting the original.

What she has achieved is monumental.  I would go so far as to call it a service to humanity, particularly in relation to the hammering that Iraq has taken in the last 30 years.  As far as I know, Kathy Henderson does school visits and it would be fascinating to here how she wrote this retelling, not least the research.

You couldn’t map this as a story with a classic narrative structure, in the sense of the one that we teach to children – beginning, build-up etc.  It would be ridiculous.  What Kathy Henderson allows to come through, and which she illuminates, is the strange, at times numinous quality of the story.  The climax of this is the encounter between the hero, Lugalbanda, and the mythic Anzu bird (shown in the illustration above).

Jung would have loved it.  You can plot the journey of the psyche, as represented by Lugalbanda, from beginning to end: innocence and weakness, falling into sickness, the emergence from a cave apparently helpless but in fact with new power, a crucial period of self-reliance, the alliance through respect and cunning with the apparently-fearsome Anzu bird, the culmination as hero,

Who needs narrative structure when you’ve got that?  And of course children get it.  They always like the bit with the Anzu bird the best – the bit where we realise that we do not have to be afraid of the strength and power in ourselves as human beings.  The context of the story is war – Lugalbanda’s father has launched an unprovoked attack on a neighbour – but it ends with a message of restraint.  The newly-realised hero is sent for assistance in bringing the war to a close to a goddess, who advises him how to achieve victory and, as important, to preserve the people and culture of the vanquished city.  So, we have the (male) hero and the (female) deity bringing resolution through conflict, followed by peace.

Children like hearing about things explained in this way: they may not understand it consciously but it resonates with (thank you, Jung) their unconscious, where this story makes most sense.  That wouldn’t be possible without the quality of Kathy Henderson’s writing and Jane Ray’s art.  So, this text is a doubly-beneficial one, meeting children’s need to understand themselves as human beings, through the adventure of the child protagonist, and their need for great words and pictures.

The text is certainly demanding.  It mixes the speech-related sentence types of the oral story-teller – ‘And he began to prepare for war.’ –  or – ‘His brothers carried him to a warm cave and tried to make him comfortable.’ – with those of a much more literary type, e.g. ‘They stormed through the fields of barley that surrounded the city and away across the plains like a herd of wild bulls.’ or ‘Now at last they came in sight of the city of Aratta, famous for its stone and its metals, for its craftsmen and its beautiful things, and there they pitched their camp at the city boundary, expecting to conquer it in a matter of days.’

I tend to approach the introduction of the text, therefore, with a light touch, reading most of it aloud myself.  What I mean is, that I don’t examine the sentences in the same analytical way as I do with many texts.

One thing that does bare detailed examination, however, is Kathy Henderson’s use of similes.  There are many!  You could deconstruct some of the sentences containing them and try moving them into different positions, seeing if they work as fronted adverbials or if embedded, like this.  I’ve included all of them so that you can choose the ones you like, if working with them in a whole class context (you might want to select the ones that have a matching picture from the book – not all of them do).  Or, for an activity, you could enlarge and distribute so that different groups are examining different examples.  If the children can cut up the sentences into their main idea/subordinate idea parts and move around, all the better.

This kind of analysis can help children to develop an ear for literary language.  They’ll be more responsive next time they encounter it and may start to echo it in their own writing.

I have to mention of course that Jane Ray’s illustrations are as stunning as ever.  In lessons introducing the book I’ve used the picture showing Lugalbanda’s home city, Uruk, by photocopying half of it and asking children to draw the other half, as the suggestion of symmetry in it is so satisfying.  It also draws their close attention to the story’s context and setting.


Picture book author recommendation: Kathy Henderson 1 of 3 – The Little Boat

If I had to compile a Top Ten Teaching Picture Books I’m not sure which Kathy Henderson title I would choose because they serve very different purposes.

I love The Little Boat (illustrated by Patrick Benson, one of my Top Ten Teaching Picture Books Illustrators) for teaching what a sentence is.  I’m not fond of children being told that they should put a full stop at the end of a sentence when they might not yet have grasped what a sentence is.  Having done years of Literacy intervention I can say that, as we all know, there will always be children who get to Year 6 not understanding what a sentence is.  And of course the lower you go through the year groups, the more children there will be.

The Little Boat shows an author making a sentence last for a whole book – well, the text certainly starts with a capital letter, but there is no full stop at the end of it.  There are no full stops at all.  Each section of text is in fact defined by the picture that matches it, like this:

The picture here is not complete: what you can see above is the left-hand half of a double-page spread, and the right-hand side continues the illustration, illustrating all the detail mentioned in the text.  That’s the format of all the pages.

What I find so useful in terms of instruction is that it shows how a sentence can be anything the writer wants it to be.  Kathy Henderson makes hers a series of simple ideas – here, ‘the boat sailed out’ – combined with a great number of adverbials that both add detail and move the story forward.

You could use this section in pieces written on to pieces of paper- *start teaching* here’s the main idea (one colour), here’s a bit (in a second colour) that tells you where it went, here’s a bit (second colour) that tells you more about where they went, here’s a bit (second colour) that tells you where it went next, etc.  How many pieces does the author use to describe this picture?  Let’s put the words on the part of the picture that they go with.  Let’s draw the bits from the writing that we can’t see (like ‘the skim of the wind’ and ‘the silvery fish’) on the picture by Patrick.  Look how Patrick puts all of Kathy’s words in the picture.  Look how Kathy puts her ideas on different lines.  Let’s put these bits of sentence in a line.  Let’s put the part of the picture that goes with them above. *end teaching*

Then you could experiment with punctuation.  *Where could we end this idea?  How do we show the end of an idea?  If we put a full-stop here, how do we have to show that we’re beginning a new idea with the next word?*

Some of the pages mirror the list-type, close-to-speech writing of children who haven’t yet moved away from using ‘and’ to join ideas.  The text above continues:

and it bobbed by

a tugboat chugging home

from leading a liner

out to sea

and it churned in the wake

still further out

of a giant tanker

as high as a house

and as long as a road

Here, you could ask *which ‘ands’ could we take out and replace with a full-stop?*  You could then repeat with children’s own previous writing.  I like to make it explicit that *grown-up authors can change the rules because they have had lots of practice and they’re very skilled, but you still have to follow the rules*.

All of this instruction makes feedback so much more meaningful: you’ve explained what a sentence is, deconstructed and reconstructed it, mapped it against a picture – and if feedback references all this teaching it makes it less a mantra *Don’t forget to put full stops at the end of your sentences* and more of an activation of previous concrete learning.

P.S.  Where the Wild Things Are can be used in a similar way, though it does have more full stops.

Resources for ‘The Village That Vanished’ – Power of Reading suggestions fleshed out

story mountain picture

These are some resources that I made to flesh out the suggestions on the Power of Reading notes that go with The Village That Vanished.

Without wanting to give way to lazy hyperbole, this is a truly great book in every way.  The illustrations are deeply-felt; the love of the illustrator (the artist Kadir Nelson) for the text shines out of every picture.  They are also technically very beautiful.

Though the pictures do a great deal to convey the meaning of the text, it’s still one that presents a heavy load.

Firstly, I find the structure complicated (I wouldn’t ask children to re-tell this story – also because it’s too long).  I’ve mapped the structure here, with a ‘classic’ story mountain to compare it with.  There’s also an activity that you can do with a whole class using PowerPoint or an Interactive Whiteboard.

Also, the sentences, in terms of language and structure, are demanding.  Here’s a summary, showing how they include more advanced types of punctuation (a colon, hyphens) as well.  Now that (until it changes again…) fronted adverbials are the only kind that matter, I can say that if you’re looking for those, there are some very good examples, particularly of those starting with adjectives (can be hard to model using a good text) and those starting with ‘-ing’ verbs.

Having said that, you could just go through how good the language is in all its aspects (there are some examples of really complex sentences at the bottom of the sentence summary above).  If you want to do that, I’ve saved you the trouble of typing them out in  this document.

Should you wish to focus on fronted adverbials – and you have to, after all – there are some ideas here and here.

The Power of Reading notes suggest:

  1.  writing a prayer, using Njemile’s as a model.  Here’s an EAL-friendly starting point for that.
  2. having a debate about whether or not to leave the village.
  3. deciding which of the characters Njemile, Abikanile or Chimwala is the heroine.

After doing the heroines activity, the notes suggest comparing your one true heroine with other heroines.  You could try the ‘Barefoot Book of Heroines’ by Rebecca Hazel (NB non-fiction) for that.



Picture book recommendation: ‘Tabby Cat’s Secret’ by Kathy Henderson

I read this today:

“Cognitive load theorists suggest teaching domain-specific skills is more effective because, while general problem-solving skills are innate to humans and therefore do not need to be explicitly taught, domain-specific skills are not automatically acquired by learners without explicit teaching.” From ‘Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand’ (NSW Education Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation August 2017)

Cognitive load theorists are psychologists interested in the relation between how the brain works and how children should therefore be taught.  They seem to be saying ‘don’t expect children to learn a technical skill without modelling it’.

At the end of this article, the authors point out that this statement refers to research conducted in Maths, Science and Technology, that there is very little research in relation to other areas, including the teaching of writing.  So, the first thing to question about it is, is it relevant for a teacher of primary age children learning how to write?  Then, if it is, what would that modelling look like?

‘Worked examples’ are the way to go, according to the article, which explains the term as follows:

A ‘worked example’ is a problem that has already been solved for the learner, with every step fully explained and clearly shown. The ‘worked example effect’ is the widely replicated finding that novice learners who are given worked examples to study perform better on subsequent tests than learners who are required to solve the equivalent problems themselves (Carroll 1994; Cooper & Sweller 1987; Sweller & Cooper 1985). The reason for this, according to cognitive load theory, is that unguided problem-solving places a heavy burden on working memory, inhibiting the ability of the learner to transfer the information into their long-term memory. The learner may effectively solve the problem, but because their working memory was overloaded they may not recognise and remember the rule that would allow them to quickly solve the same problem again in the future.

Can this be transferred to the context of primary writing?  Can you compare a Maths problem to a piece of writing?

One obvious difference between a Maths problem and a piece of writing is that there is no single, correct outcome (though when it comes to solutions, I understand, there are those that would be considered more mathematically elegant … ).  However, ‘worked problems’ are something that teachers of writing arguably use routinely.

Here’s one:

Annie in garden
From Tabby Cat’s Secret by Kathy Henderson, illustrated by Susan Winter

We might write this as the following equation: vocabulary + adverbials + detail + variety + sense description + variety of sentence length = a really good piece of writing.

I know that some teachers like to tackle vocabulary by providing lists or directing children towards thesauri, that the government likes to direct teaching of fronted adverbials, and that since sense description and variety of sentence length have been removed from the curriculum (and with it APP guidance).

But I’d rather spend a whole lesson unpicking what makes this extract so good, within the context of the children reading the whole book, and then instructing them carefully on how to write one like it.

Here’s the whole extract:

That night when everyone was fast asleep

Tabby Cat came to lie on Annie’s bed.

She purred until she woke her

then got up and walked towards the door.

And Annie thought, she wants to show me now,

and stumbled sleepy out of bed

and followed through one door

and then another

and out into the barefoot garden

where Tabby Cat turned in circles

round and round Annie’s warm legs

in the cool grass

under the moon.

“Show me your kittens?”



And she was gone.






Picture book recommendation: House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser

House Held Up By Trees cover
THE TREES LIFTED IT AND LIFTED IT, and maybe you will drive past it today or tomorrow, as it floats there above the ground like a tree house, a house in the trees, a house held together by the strength of trees, and the wind blowing, perfumed by little green flowers.


This is one of the picture books I have used for teaching writing.  It is about a house that at the beginning stands on a bare square of earth, which by the end is so encroached upon by forest that it is literally lifted out of the ground.  In this sense the narrative is linear.  The advance of the forest is matched by the retreat of the human beings that lived in it, first the children when they grow up, then the father who moves to the city.

Each stage of this reversal is described in the sort of careful detail that needs to be modelled to children in order for them to develop the ability to “‘live through’ the narrative and inhabit their own fictions more fully”, “to fill in the background of the action as well as simply telling the story” (quotes from The Reader in the Writer by Myra Barrs and Valerie Cork).  The interesting dimension that this book has is in providing the opportunity to write from the point of view of an inanimate object – the house itself.

The pictures by Jon Klassen create a sort of wistful atmosphere, with their pale browns and oranges.  They make a big contribution, to the extent that it would be worthwhile to address this specifically by presenting photocopies to the children in black and white for comparison with the colour versions.  Importantly, they very much help to illustrate the text, which has a distinctly literary style, one that is clearly demanding for many children to comprehend and echo.

For those interested in teaching adverbials it offers many examples – not just fronted!  (Anyone who is as much of a nerd as I am can find them all here: click to download.)  Most importantly, it presents children with the opportunity of learning about them within the fully-supported context of a beautifully-written and illustrated text.

Fronted Adverbials – starting with prepositions

This post focuses on one method of writing fronted adverbials – using prepositions as the first word.

This can be done with both types of preposition: 1. those that describe where something is, and 2. those that describe the movement of something. For example, Mole in The Wind in the Willows:

  1. By its side he trotted spellbound; and when tired at last, he sat on the opposite bank.
  2. From out of the hole of an old beech tree came a feeble voice, saying, “Ratty! Is that really you!”

    Ratty finds Mole.jpg
    From ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Inga Moore (Walker, 2000)

In the first example, Mole is enjoying the river in spring; in the second, he is rescued from the Wild Wood by Ratty.

(Begin aside: I’ve taught in many schools and never come across one that has used The Wind in the Willows as a unit text.  I don’t know why.  It’s such a beautifully-written book, full of verve, wit and adventure.  The one I’ve got, abridged and illustrated by Inga Moore – who you would recognise as the illustrator of Six Dinner Sid – has the most stunning illustrations, full of love for nature and the countryside.  They also illustrate the text really clearly, which is another reason for using this text.  End aside.)

The use of prepositions at the beginning of the sentence really is a literary device: you rarely hear people use it in normal speech.  I think it’s helpful to explain to children that this is the case – that it can feel forced and artificial – but it’s an effective one used by many picture book authors.

Click here for a PowerPoint with images from a range of picture books and the sentences that go with them.  The sentences all start with fronted adverbials using prepositions that explain where something is.

I’d suggest showing these to pupils as they illustrate the idea really well.  You can then use images with a main idea provided, the task being to put a fronted adverbial before the main idea, one that explains where something in the image is.  Something like this.


Teaching Fronted Adverbials ‘Using Mog the Forgetful Cat’

Mog 12

This is a great book for teaching sentence structure.  Read on for teaching ideas and free downloadable resources.

Begin caveat: the structure of the story is quite complicated.

If you look at it in terms of the ‘story mountain ‘ approach, the beginning and build-up are quite long, as the author does a lot to establish the character of Mog. Then there are a series of mini-problems before the problem proper arrives. And this problem is immediately followed by another problem. So if we were to make a story mountain for this story it would look like this:

Mog story mountain

As opposed to the classic:

classic story mountain

Which is why I wouldn’t use this book for anything that required pupils to retell the story in writing – it’s just not a good model structurally.  End caveat.

Having said this about structure, this book is a great choice for teaching fronted adverbials because of the language. It’s written for pre-school children so, even though it has lots of humour and action, the language is very simple – with many subject+verb+object type simple sentences.  It is these sentences that you can use as the building blocks for teaching how to use fronted adverbials.

How to do it

Have a look at the chart with the blue boxes below (also downloadable at the end of this post).  It shows the variety of ways you can teach fronted adverbials.   Some, like those starting with ‘time’ prepositions, come more naturally.  Others are quite literary in their effect and even older children will have to make a conscious effort to use them.

Mog blue chart 1

Mog blue chart 2

The sentences in black are, on their own, simple sentences. The additions in red are fronted adverbials. Together, simple sentence + fronted adverbial = higher value sentence.

The sentences in black here summarise the action i.e. they are not lifted directly from the text. But you can use the sentences in the text as they are and make an activity about adding fronted adverbials.

The teaching progression and sheets for this are here, the story mountains are here and the blue charts are here.

(Font alert – I haven’t got any Sassoon-type fonts, so I’m using Bradley Hand for worksheets, which I hope works for you.)