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What Happened to the Frog?

During this new era of the Common Core State Standards, it is essential for teachers and librarians not only to have an understanding of the end goal of each particular standard but also to have a deep knowledge of the children’s literature that can support it. Take, for example, the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading [Key Ideas and Details, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1]: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” There is a variation of this standard at every grade level, increasing every year in complexity and difficulty, but it’s not until fourth grade (and then every grade thereafter) that the words drawing inferences and textual evidence become firmly ensconced in the language of the standard. The standards for grades K–3 focus on main ideas and supporting details, but you can teach main idea until the cows come home and not prepare your young charges to draw inferences and support them with textual evidence. That’s why it’s important to lay the groundwork in the early years — before the standards require it and before it becomes a game of catch-up.

willems_citydogIn order to prepare children for learning about inference, I have assembled a text set for the primary grades. Mo Willems’s City Dog, Country Frog, illustrated by Jon J Muth, is a book I use successfully with students as early as kindergarten. One day, a dog visiting from the city bounds into the woods. There he meets a frog, who shares with him the joys of country living. Every season thereafter throughout the year, the dog returns for a day of play. Over the course of the year, the frog’s skin grows duller in the illustrations and, as the text notes, he slows down physically. When winter rolls around, the frog doesn’t show up to their meeting spot, and the dog is sad and perplexed. Still, he returns the following spring. When I ask students, “What happened to the frog?” they are puzzled; their answers typically vary from plausible (“The frog ran away” or “The frog is hibernating”) to wild guesses (“The frog got kidnapped by aliens!”). Rarely do I immediately get an answer based on textual evidence, and I’m broadly interpreting the term here to include both the words and the pictures. Obviously, what I’m hoping to tease out in my discussion with students is the textual evidence that will help them make the inference that the frog has died, and this story is short enough that we can read it through several times while they work it out.

klassen_i want my hat backIn Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, a bear asks a series of animals, “Have you seen my hat?” Perceptive readers see (but the bear misses…at first) that a rabbit is wearing the bear’s hat. The bear eventually confronts the rabbit, and then the rabbit disappears from sight. After reading the book aloud, I ask the obvious question, “What happened to the rabbit?” The children fall into two camps: either the bear is sitting on the rabbit, or the bear ate the rabbit. Many of those who believe that the bear is sitting on the rabbit made up their minds on the spread where the bear, having retrieved his property, smugly declares, “I love my hat.” At this point in the story it makes perfect sense for the bear to be sitting on top of the rabbit: the bear appears to be in the exact spot where the rabbit was last seen (as evidenced by the trampled vegetation — yet another inference). Moreover, because the bear was unfailingly polite throughout the story, it would represent a significant break in character for him to have done harm to the rabbit. This page generates a lot of laughs, and many students don’t notice — or they disregard — the two pieces of evidence found on the last page of text, namely (1) the bear’s twitchy denial of a crime he hasn’t been accused of (a classic sign of guilty behavior!) and (2) his use of the same pattern of speech the rabbit — by now, a known liar — employed to deny something he actually had done. Because there is no picture of what transpires between the two characters at the climax of the story, the reader is forced to draw an inference one way or another. The story doesn’t work unless the reader does this.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon KlassenMost readers will decide, upon further reflection, that the bear has eaten the rabbit, but those who stubbornly hold out for a kinder, gentler interpretation usually change their tune after hearing Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat, in which a little-fish narrator brags throughout the book about having made off with a big fish’s hat…and then (also) disappears. I find my students’ certainty about the outcome somewhat curious. Unlike in I Want My Hat Back, there is no dichotomy here, no either/or conundrum. On the surface, the story appears much more open-ended. This time, the little fish really could have gotten away, or he could have been abducted by aliens, or simply been beaten up by the bigger fish, or many other equally plausible or ridiculous possibilities. So what makes everyone so sure that the big fish ate the little fish? The easy and obvious answer here is intertexuality. The children are using their prior knowledge of the first book as a clue to how they should read the second one. My students are already familiar with the concept of intertextuality, largely from the recurring Pigeon in Willems’s work, but this is the first time their reading of a text actually pivots on it.

It’s immediately apparent in the first several spreads of This Is Not My Hat that the pictures directly contradict the words — if you read it the right way you can induce children to delightedly assert this fact—and this contradiction between the visual story line and the textual one creates a delicious sense of irony. Everything that the little fish says is manifestly false on every single page of the book. By the time we get to the closing lines (“I knew I was going to make it. / Nobody will ever find me”), Klassen has once again created a pattern, one that points to the demise of the little fish. Between the intertextual clues provided by the first book and the irony and foreshadowing of the second book, he’s brought the reader very close to an inference (i.e., that the big fish ate the little one). But they have to make the final leap.

knock knockThese three books — City Dog, Country Frog; I Want My Hat Back; and This Is Not My Hat — challenge my youngest students and still serve as good models for older students. Of course, I also introduce more books for older children, some of them longer, some more complex. Additional picture books I’ve used include Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis (“What happened to the caterpillar?”), Lucha Libre by Xavier Garza (“What happened to the uncle?”), and Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty (“What happened to the father?”). Ultimately, however, we want students to move from practicing inference on short, isolated pieces of text to using it intuitively in longer works of literature such as novels. I usually booktalk Lord of the Deep by Graham Salisbury to my fellow teachers and librarians as an example of a novel to which students will need to apply their skills of inference in order to fully understand it. Over the course of the story, thirteen-year-old narrator Mikey comes to judge the actions of his stepfather based on a binary right/wrong morality, but for his stepfather, Bill, the ethical dilemma is more about shades of gray. Bill is faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils, but readers have to infer his ethical dilemma because Mikey himself cannot see it — and they have to do it unprompted while they are attending to all the literary elements of the novel.

It’s a tall order, but if we’ve done 
our work in the primary grades, we 
will have prepared students for the more complex tasks awaiting them further along.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.
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Renee Perron

Wonderful article. I am sending a link to this article to all the school librarians and teachers that I communicate with in the school district in which I would as a public librarian.

Posted : Nov 28, 2014 04:47

Mary Roche

This is really great. Resonates with my own work. Maybe you'd like this resource:

Posted : Nov 03, 2014 06:58


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