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Mother to Tigers (Junior Library Guild Selection)

Mother to Tigers - George Ella Lyon, Peter Catalanotto 2/1/2011 ** This picture book biography tells the story of the first female zookeeper in the history of the Bronx zoo - Helen Martini. Set in the 40s, Helen first cared for a lion cub and three tiger cubs in her small New York apartment. Peter Catalonato's soothing watercolors beautifully capture the 'catness' of the animals. George Ella Lyon brings her rhythmic prose to the simple narrative. One of the text features I'll be sure to draw my students' attention to is the unique hook Lyon uses - the first two pages of italicized text ask the reader to imagine herself as a lion cub being placed in a box in the back of the car. This introduction is followed by the title pages and then the story of Helen's involvement with animals begins.

I decided over the weekend that I wanted to do a genre study of picture book biographies with my 4th graders. This was partly inspired by hearing Brian & Andrea Pinkney talk about their collaborative projects, a number of which are PB Biog. However, due to some momentary lapse brought on by the sheer fact of the arrival of Monday morning, I managed to get to school with none of the books I wanted. Yikes, what to read aloud today? I made a quick foray into my classroom library and found just one PB biog - MOTHER to TIGERS. It would have to suffice!

As soon as I pulled it out, several kids oohed & aahed, commenting that they'd read the book early in the year. Several even went so far as to show me their reading log entries about the book. Wow - they even knew about when they'd read it, facilitating their search through the notebook. Perhaps this is a testament to the power of Readers' Workshop - self-selected reading and open-ended response.

In an effort to decrease the number of verbal interruptions, which really have been detracting from our reading, thinking, and listening pleasure (perhaps marginalizing the kids who process more slowly or privately), I decided to try an idea I'd had when reading responses from my university children's lit students. I asked my 4th graders to write comments/questions/connections, etc. on the right side of their notebook and draw responses on the left. We then used the notebook entries as the basis for partner, team, and whole class discussion of about the experiences of Helen Martini and the big cat cubs she nurtured. As we read more biographies in this format, we'll start to move the discussion beyond the individual lives of the biographies' subjects to the characteristics of the genre.