Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Making Scents

Making Scents. Arthur Yorinks, Braden Lamb & Shelli Paroline. 108 pages, First Second Books, 2017. 

First Second Books has been one of my favorite publishers for kids graphic novels for a long time now, and their ability to find talent and draw the best stories out of them is continuing on strong. 2017's Making Scents is a good example of a book that's ideal for kids in grades 3-5, telling a great story that is equal parts funny, weird, and unexpectedly sentimental.

The book is about Mickey, a boy being raised alongside his parents' dogs. Mom and Dad have bloodhounds, which help police solve crimes. Mickey grows up with the dogs as siblings, and they're a big happy family; Mickey develops a keen sense of smell so he can play with and compete with his brothers and sisters. He spends a lot of time on all fours, he doesn't use utensils to eat...basically, he's a dog.

After a tragedy, Mickey is sent to live with an aunt and uncle. The aunt and uncle don't like pets, so Mickey is separated again, this time from his siblings. He goes through the normal stages of grief, but is also trying to figure out who he is, and what he has to contribute to this new family. Can his unique sniffing talents be used to make his aunt and uncle happy? Can he share them with the kids at his new school? What is his place in the world? Mickey asks a lot of the same questions about himself that we all do, but Yorinks uses the (admittedly odd) device of the special smelling powers to help readers see things from a different angle.

I love the artwork -- very retro, 1950s-style art. Streamlined, sparse backgrounds with cartoony characters, and only three colors per page. It works well for this story, which has elements of near-magic that might not work in a "realistic" setting.

In all, Making Scents reminded me more of a Pixar movie than other books for young readers. The elements of comedy, adventure, and tragedy are all layered with a heartfelt ability to overcome grief, to find acceptance, to find love. It's a book I don't know that I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I did.


This is a good book for grades 3-5, with a few frightening moments that teachers would want to be sensitive to. I'd use Making Scents as the jumping-off point for three different activities with kids:

Mickey uses his "powers" in several different ways in the story. At school, in games with friends, and for more serious things later in the book. How could he use those powers as an adult? What kind of job could he get that would let him use his talents to their fullest extent? Have students write a short story about what kind of workday Mickey would have as a grownup.

Making Scents would be a good entry point for a unit on the senses, focusing in on the science of smelling. It's one that we use all the time, but it doesn't get all the top billing that say, sight or hearing get. If kids didn't have a sense of smell at all, what would their day be like? What do our noses tell us that our other senses don't?

Some of my favorite parts of the book are with Mickey growing up alongside the dogs, and him behaving like a dog. Have students write a story about what it would be like to grow up with a different set of animals. What if the pets were cats? Birds? What if their parents raised giraffes? What if they grew up alongside a pride of lions? What kinds of skills would you learn from those animals? What would be fun? What would be difficult? What would it be like to go to school and behave like a "human" if you were raised that way?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Using the Weird World of Archie McPhee as Writing Prompts

Most of a student's school day is predictable to the point of despair. Their day is regulated by bells, they're sitting in the same classes, taught by the same people, using the same reading and math program, using the same worksheets. Sometimes as teachers we end up in PD sessions in those same classrooms, and it's torture sitting in those desks and focusing for 45 minutes, let alone seven hours. There are things about the school day we can't change for them; but where we can, let's mix it up.

A big part of Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics is embracing the unusual. The bizarre. The downright weird. And I don't know if there's anything weirder than the world of Archie McPhee.

Archie McPhee is headquartered in Seattle, and in the pre-internet days was best known for their catalog of bizarre products. Now that catalog is all online of course, and it's one of the most fun and funny and weird places to go for classroom ideas. One of my favorite activities to do with students (and I share in Play Like a Pirate and in workshops) is to have students design their own action figures in lieu of traditional biography reports; Archie McPhee has some very cool action figures:

Pretty cool, pretty mainstream, pretty tame. You've likely seen some of their other products too. Freakish (and terrifying) horse head masks. A "Punching Nun" puppet. Finger hands. Their catalog goes much deeper than literary action figures. And possibly, much deeper than what you'd want to see. 

There's an entire bacon oeuvre on the site. Bacon soap. Bacon band-aids. Bacon scarves. Bacon-scented mustaches. Bacon dental floss. And, what's possibly my favorite, Yodelling Bacon

For the cat lover in your life, there's a Crazy Cat Lady board Game, Inflatable Unicorn Horns that go atop your pet's head, a car air freshener that's a renaissance painting of a cat, cat paws that go on your fingers, and a dashboard cat Buddha. My favorite cat-related item (besides the set of six glow in the dark cats that I bought and are glowing Right Now) is probably the Cat Bonnet

I have a cat. Her name is Slinky Marie Mousechaser. And she hates my dog. My good, good boy. She's had this bonnet coming for a while. 

Instant underpants for those...emergencies.

Handerpants, for people whose hands get cold when they're typing but need their fingers free. Very Dickensian. And very...not. 

Their now-iconic horse head masks have also been shrunk down and repurposed to be squirrel feeders, so those bushy-tailed rodents are even more terrifying:

Okay, okay. So they've got a lot of weird stuff. How would I use this in class? Essentially, as writing prompts. Students are expected to do a lot of informational writing these days. A lot of persuasive writing. And while some of that is engaging, a lot of it is...not. Here are three ways I'd use Archie McPhee as a writing prompt:

1. Have students write copy for an existing product. Give them just the photo of an Archie McPhee product, say...Emergency Inflatable Toast

And have them write the "Ad Copy" for the product. The ad copy is the text on the website or in the catalog that's convincing potential buyers that they need this product. In the case of Emergency Inflatable Toast, the existing ad copy is this:                                                                                                                                              The person who invented bread was probably heralded as a genius, but just think about the person who invented toast. I mean, the Bible calls bread the staff of life, but surely toast is the staff of awesome. It has an amazing crunch, nooks and crannies for butter and it costs almost nothing! When you want all the comfort of toast and none of the crumbs, you want Inflatable Toast. You don't even need an inflatable toaster! When you need your Inflatable Toast, pull it out of its tin, blow it up and just revel in its realistic toasty goodness. Perfect for toast emergencies of all kinds.

Ideally, you'd have a few of their actual products on hand, not just photos of them, so the kids get the full impact of how weird they are. I mean, you want the Ruth Bader Ginsburg "Dissent Mints" anyway, right? You'd want to show kids a few examples of what advertising is, watch a few commercials on YouTube, but their task would be to write a paragraph or two selling the customer on the Emergency Inflatable Toast. They should emphasize the practical nature of the (ridiculous) product, and make sure we know why we need it in our lives. I mean, look at it. Of course we do. 

2. Write a commercial for an existing product. Similar to the the first one of course, you're still advertising that weird, weird...thing. Their commercial would include ad copy, but could go even further, including dialogue between multiple characters. They could include a jingle. They could design a mascot for the product, like Admiral Toast.  Full disclosure: Admiral Toast is my friend Scott. I knew he was a hand model for Archie McPhee, but I had no idea about Admiral Toast, and I'll never stop loving this picture, ever. They could just write the commercial, but ideally they'd record it as well, or perform it for the class. 

3. Design a new product pitch. A product pitch is where you have an idea for a new product that Archie McPhee should carry, so you do a quick mock-up (in our case, probably a drawing), an argument for why this product would be a good seller, some ad copy, and a price point that you'd be able to sell the product at. You could have students connect this new product to your content. What would an Ancient Egyptian Archie McPhee catalog have in it? What kind of product would fit into a stage of the water cycle? What would Katniss Everdeen want to have on hand? The new items would be ostensibly practical (band-aids) but with a bizarre twist (they look like bacon). The product pitch needs to emphasize both of those aspects.

My rule of thumb about inserting the bizarre into traditional classroom assignments and assessments is that it's not appropriate for every assignment, but it's always memorable. These pieces of persusasive writing would be ones that students remember, but also that they're excited to share. With friends, with parents, with other teachers. Let them be weird. As my son memorably told his third grade teacher, "In my family, weird is a compliment. Weird is good."