“The Beast Pit”
by Shannon Hale, illustrated by Calef Brown

“Joe, do the Flying Watermelon!” Nancy said.

Without hesitation, Joe performed a backflip off the tree branch. While he was still mid-air, Nancy tossed baby Max in a graceful arc (he weighed about the same as the watermelons they used back in the circus). Joe landed on the forest floor, his arms outstretched, and the baby plopped safely in his hands, while Nancy leapt after them hands-first, finishing off with a cartwheel. She bowed automatically before remembering there would be no applause in this villain-infested woods – only certain death.

Trees! Annotated List of Suggested Read Alouds and Independent Reads
Activities for the Classroom
For Parents, Teachers, Librarians — Talk Art!
Discussion Questions

Trees! Annotated List of Suggested Read Alouds and Independent Reads

by Thom Barthelmess; Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University

Read Alouds

Ehlert, Lois. Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf. 40p. Gr. PreK-3.
Swirling, autumnal oranges and reds, and crisp, fresh yellows and greens combine in breathtaking collages to tell the story of a sugar maple tree, from seed to stature. Ehlert tells a simple story, complimenting the straightforward narrative with scientific details about the tree itself, as well as the plant- and wildlife sharing its branches and shade.

Locker, Thomas, with Candace Christiansen. Sky Tree: Seeing Science Through Art. 40p. Gr. K-4.
Locker and Christiansen have created a seamless amalgam of art and science as beautiful as it interesting. Working on a number of levels, a series of images of the same tree, from the same vantage point, progresses through the seasons, illuminating both the natural changes that transpire and the artistic principles involved in painting the story.

Udry, Janice May, illustrated by Marc Simont. A Tree is Nice. 32p. Gr. PreK-2.
This classic picture book brings a message of environmental awareness and stewardship to young children, in a perfectly age-appropriate, non-didactic package. Udry’s simple text and Simont’s elegant paintings combine to great effect, celebrating the wonders that trees represent. Indeed, “a tree is nice.”

Independent Reads

de Fombelle, Timothee. Toby Alone. 400p. Gr. 3-6.
Translated from the French, de Fomblelle’s fantastical novel follows young, tiny (one-and-a-half millimeters tall) Toby Lolness as he is exiled to the lower branches of the Tree his family has inhabited his whole life. Ecological resonances add depth to an already gripping and inventive story of one boy’s commitment and resilience.

Choldenko, Gennifer. If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. 224p. Gr. 4-8.
Kristen is beginning seventh grade with an extra 30 pounds, and a household in turmoil. Walk is beginning as the only black student at the prestigious (read snobby) Mountain School. Brianna Hanna-Hines is the most-popular girl in school, and wields her popularity like a chain-saw. Told in alternating voices, this story of drama and reconciliation is poignantly told and powerfully affecting.

Wyss, Johann, with an introduction by Jon. The Swiss Family Robinson. 352p. Gr. 4-7.
Almost 200 years after the novel’s first publication, everyone’s favorite tree-house inhabitants still delight, meeting the challenges of island survival with wit, cunning, and optimism.

© 2009 Thom Barthelmess

Activities for the Classroom

by Raynell Walls, NBCT

Episode 7 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure introduces the reader to a couple of robust scientific words: clone and DNA. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the genetic fingerprint of life. This robust word lends itself to several word study and word play activities.

According to Donald R. Bear of Words Their Way, the purpose of Word Study is to examine words in order to reveal consistencies within our written language system and to help students master the recognition, spelling, and meaning of specific words. Word study allows students opportunities to discover the beauty of words, to think critically, and to have fun at the same time.

Little Words from Big Words

Little Words from Big Words is an engaging activity that builds vocabulary and gives practice in creative thinking. Take a “big word” like deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Find as many “little words” or “hidden” words within this big word as possible.

Little Words from Big Words allows a variety of ways to analyze, investigate, manipulate, and create lists and categories of “hidden” words. Individuals or pairs can search for words, in general, or they can be directed to search for specific word patterns. For example, an obvious word that “jumps out” at you is acid. However, if searching for a hidden word that follows the CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) pattern one might choose lid.

Rules of the Game

  1. Print each letter of the word deoxyribonucleic acid on an individual card. Vowels can be coded in red and consonants in black. Episode 7 Graphic 1
  2. Individual students or pairs manipulate the letter cards to find smaller words “hidden” within the original word deoxyribonucleic acid. Record “hidden” words on a chart or on a sheet of paper for reference.

Rationale: Manipulating the letters lets students use their tactile (touch) or kinesthetic intelligence to find new hidden words. Also, working with partners builds cooperative learning, team-building, and the sharing of knowledge.

Examples:  deer    rice     onc    nuclear     oryx

Episode 7 Graphic 2

  1. Challenge students to build a Word Pyramid. (See the sample pictured at right.) Start with a single letter. In the sample, the letter is repeated and a new letter is added to form a two-letter word. A new letter is added in this way to each level of the pyramid. The sequence of letters may be shifted or may remain the same. The process continues until the final five-letter word is written. Assemble the papers into a “Build a Pyramid” class puzzle book.
  2. Time students as they compete to find as many hidden words as possible! (How many words can you find in 15 minutes?)
  3. Dictionaries should be available to check the validity of any “hidden” word. (What a great way to encourage students to use the dictionary!)

Word Sorts

According to Donald M. Bear, sorting is a powerful way to help students make sense of words. When students sort words, they are engaged in the active process of searching, comparing, contrasting, and analyzing. Two approaches to word sorts are teacher-directed and student-created activities. Words can also be sorted by sound, pattern, or meaning.

Teacher-Directed Closed Sorts

  1. Conduct a Sound Sort to find rhyming words like rib, bib, crib, and adlib.
  2. Conduct a Sound/Pattern Sort as indicated in the following table:

Episode 7 Graphic 3Student-Centered Open Sorts

Student/pairs conduct Open Sorts to find as many “hidden” words as possible. Students create their own categories for sets of words.

Examples: Science Words, Three-Syllable Words, Verbs, etc.

Online Resources

Here are a few websites that have excellent vocabulary enrichment activities:


Bear, D.R. (2008). Words Their Way, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Fry, B.E., Kress, J.E. & Fountoukidis, D.L. (2000). The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists, 4th ed. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall.

© 2009 Raynell Walls

For Parents, Teachers, Librarians—Talk Art!

The Art Form of Silhouettes

by Mary Brigid Barrett, NCBLA

"The Beast Pit" © 2009 Calef Brown
“The Beast Pit” © 2009 Calef Brown

And just where was Genius Kelly? Nancy was turning to look when a shadowy figure dropped out of a tree, moonlight glinting on her long knife.

The twins veered away, but another shadowy figure appeared, and another, until Joe, Nancy, and baby were encircled by dozens of men and women in frighteningly black garb, all with moon-licked daggers, all smiling in a supremely villainous manner. The smiles gave Joe the creeps. Nancy didn’t notice the smiles, being suitably creeped-out by the daggers. But Baby Max was enchanted by the glinting of moonlight. It made the daggers look wet and sweet.
— From Episode 7: “The Beast Pit” by Shannon Hale

Shadowy figures abound in prose and Calef Brown employs a wry silhouette twist in his illustration for Episode 7 by Shannon Hale. Looming over our heroes Joe and Nancy, Baby Max, and their perceived foe turned friend Genius Kelly, bold villains foreshadow both danger and raucous adventure, their gestures and facial expressions a wily wrought combination of wickedness and humor. Like the Post-Impressionist artist and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Calef Brown uses flat graphic space, a limited palette, strong diagonals, and “the silhouette” to capture and intrigue viewers.

A traditional silhouette is a shadow-cast profile cut from dark paper. The word silhouette, the name of this inexpensive form of portraiture, comes from a French finance minister’s surname, one Etienne Silhouette, a miserly unpopular character who worked for Louis XV, failed miserably and retired early to his estate at Brie sur Marne, where he supposedly spent endless hours, scissors in hand, snipping away at black paper. I often wonder when I hear these pat little stories—what if the man’s name had been Blout or Greenfunghulis or Flounder would this graceful, practical, and flexible art form still have been named after the guy?

A silhouette can be a cut paper portrait, but it can also be any cut shape on dark paper fixed upon a light background. It can also be a drawn or painted outline or shape seen against a light background, or an outline or a drawing filled in with solid color against a light background. Silhouettes and shadow art exist in many world culture traditions from ancient Chinese shadow puppetry, to late 19th century Parisian Impressionist and Post-Impressionist theater and graphic art, to the contemporary art scene where artists use the silhouette to comment provocatively on world and national issues.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, like Calef Brown, used the silhouette often in his illustrations, sometimes in solid form, sometimes as a mere outline, but always to dramatic effect. Following are samples of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster art:

Toulouse-Lautrec would have been very familiar with the silhouette art form; by the late 19th century it was a well established medium. And as a frequent customer at Le Chat Noir, a cabaret in the Montmartre district in Paris, he would have seen, and possibly found inspiration from, its avant-garde shadow puppet theater. Over 43 shadow theater plays were produced by artist and craftsman Henri Rivi’re at Le Chat Noir. For the production of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Rivi’re designed over 40 visually sophisticated scenes filled with silhouette forms of animals, people, and landscape shapes cut from zinc. The silhouette puppets were backlit behind a screen and manipulated by hand.

Like Calef Brown, contemporary fine artists are putting their own “twists” on the traditional silhouette form. British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster project light against assemblages they have constructed from junk and nature, creating intriguing wall images.

Artist Kara Walker uses the traditional art of silhouette to create larger installations that comment provocatively about racism, the history of slavery, and other social issues.

And share with your kids and teens the silhouette inspired film credits for Lemony Snicket’s film A Series of Unfortunate Events (below). The credit art was designed by Jamie Caliri and produced by Axiom Design and MWP/Caliri Productions. My house is overflowing with visual artists and we really liked the movie, but we loved the film credits. The film’s credits will inspire your kids, too! Watch the film title and credit video.

Title Sequences and Film Credits for "A Series of Unfortunate Events" Created by Designer James Caliri
Title Sequences and Film Credits for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Created by Designer James Caliri

Discussion Questions and Activities

As a family or class, research the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; concentrate on his poster work. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with his work first—there are scores of books about Toulouse-Lautrec and his work, as well as multiple Internet sites—and choose to share age appropriate information and art examples for some of his work is inspired by the adult Parisian night life of the 19th and early 20th century.

Have your kids compare and contrast Calef Brown’s illustration with the examples, above, of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster work.

  • How do Calef Brown and Toulouse-Lautrec handle the picture space? Do they interpret the space in a realistic manner using traditional perspective to add depth to the pictures? Do their illustrations include a foreground, middle ground, and deep background? Or do they have more of a flat, graphic approach that plays with the space in the picture?
  • Do they use line and shape to delineate the figures in their illustrations? Or do they render their figures using shading and color tones with light and dark values to bring a “roundness” to their figures? For these questions and the previous questions above related to the use or lack of traditional perspective you might want to have your kids and teens look again at James Ransome’s Exquisite Corpse Adventure illustrations, to compare and contrast his work with the illustration we discuss here. Be sure to check out Ransome’s illustrations and the coordinating Talk Art! articles for Episode 2 and for Episode 6.
  • Ask your kids and teens how Calef Brown and Toulouse-Lautrec use color in their illustrations. Do they use a limited color palette or do they employ a wide range of colors? Are the colors used subdued or bold? Or both? Do the artists contrast light against dark or are the color values of less contrast, more medium in range?
  • Have your students squint at the illustrations making the illustrations a bit blurry, so that the details fade and the main lines and the shapes pop. Are the main lines in the illustrations very tight upright verticals and or solid horizontals? Are the shapes strong symmetrical rectangles, squares, and perfectly round circles? Are there lines and shapes that have a diagonal movement? How do diagonal lines and shapes effect the content and emotional ambiance of the illustration? Do they energize and invigorate it? (You may want to review the “Talk Art” piece for Episode 1 to add to this discussion.)
  • How have Calef Brown and Toulouse-Lautrec used the art of silhouette in their illustrations? In a traditional manner? Or have they played with it and used to promote their own visual goals? If Calef Brown and Toulouse-Lautrec had a more traditionally realistic style of illustration, would the use of silhouette have worked? Does the silhouette use in their illustrations add to the content and meaning of the illustration? Does it add to the visual power of the illustration? Does it act as a framing element for the rest of the figures and shapes in the illustration or is it the focal point of the illustration drawing the viewer into the picture plain?

Art Activity: Shadow Puppet Plays!

Have your kids and teens create their own shadow play for one or all of the episodes in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. You can give people specific tasks to create one big production—assign each person or persons the task of being playwright, director, set designer, silhouette puppet designers and creators, etc.—or you can break the larger group into smaller teams and have each team write and create their own individual productions for various episodes.

Online Resources

You can find many books about shadow puppet plays at your library. Here are some websites that may prove helpful, too:

© 2009 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance

Discussion Questions

by Geri Zabela Eddins, NCBLA

The first paragraph in Episode 7 describes the current setting as “villain-infested woods.” How does the setting affect the story? If the woods had not been described as “villain infested,” do you think a forest setting would still affect the feeling and tone of the story? How so? Does the forest setting facilitate the action in this episode? For example, would it be possible for this episode to take place in a desert, on a beach, or on a wide-open plain? Can you think of other stories in which the action takes place in a forest? Is the forest typically a setting in which good or bad things happen or both? Cite examples from stories you know.

In Episode 6 Boppo the clown announces that “…these woods are infested with all kinds of bad guys, and the leader of them is Leonardo Dubenski.” But Nancy and Joe—and we the readers—do not meet Leonardo until Episode 7. What do you think of this character? How did you react when you read his physical description? Joe giggles when he first sees Leonardo. Do you think he is funny, too? Or do you think he is scary or strange? Why? How would you compare Leonardo to Boppo?

Nancy has been consistently described as “moral” in the previous episodes. Can you point out ways that she exhibits her moral character in this episode?

Genius Kelly explains to the twins that the red arrows on their little toes and his hoof might be used like compass points to direct them to the scattered pieces of the Exquisite Corpse. How is that possible? Would you consider the arrows to be some sort of magical ability? Do any of the other characters have a magical ability? Do you think the arrows will help guide Nancy and Joe to the missing pieces of the Exquisite Corpse? Or do you think the arrows might be leading them somewhere else? Can you think of another magical ability that might serve Nancy and Joe well on this quest?

Like most of the previous episodes, Episode 7 ends as a cliffhanger. (A cliffhanger is “a work issued in installments that end at a point of great suspense.”) How is this cliffhanger ending different than the previous episodes? How does it make you feel? What do you think will happen next? What can Nancy and Joe do to help themselves? Write your own version of Episode 8 and decide for yourself what happens next to Nancy, Joe, Baby Max, and Genius Kelly. Or, take turns ending the story out loud! Let each young person add another sentence—or two—until the group agrees that the story has come to a satisfying conclusion.


Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. (2006). A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

© 2009 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance