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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Pictures in the Mind: Magicians and Elephants

November 4, 2009

Our new family read aloud is Kate DiCamillo's The Magician's Elephant. Although we're only three chapters in, we're all hooked. It's a great read aloud for my kids, ages 7 and 9, and I'm sure other ages would love it too.

An excerpt from Kirkus Reviews:

Ten-year-old Peter Augustus Duchene goes to the market for fish and bread but spends it at the fortuneteller's tent instead. Seeking his long-lost sister, Peter is told, "You must follow the elephant. She will lead you there." And that very night at the Bliffenendorf Opera House, a magician's spell goes awry, conjuring an elephant that crashes through the ceiling and lands on Madam Bettine LaVaughn. Reading like a fable told long ago, with rich language that begs to be read aloud, this is a magical story about hope and love, loss and home, and of questioning the world versus accepting it as it is.

The book's website offers Chapter 1 as an excerpt, as well as an activity kit and a reading group discussion guide.

DiCamillo's writing brings you right there: right to the fortuneteller's tent, right to the magician's prison cell. While the book includes a few illustrations, (beautifully done by Yoko Tanaka) the writing provides a perfect opportunity to help kids develop pictures in their mind while reading or listening. The National Reading Panel includes mental imagery as one of their "top 7" comprehension strategies, citing research that suggests imagery can improve memory, comprehension, and an appreciation for text.

I found one booklist with titles to use with young kids that provide mental imagery practice:

  • Into The Book's list chosen by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • .

Let's make our own list of books to use with kids that provide powerful mental images, I'll start! You comment in with titles too!

1. The Magician's Elephant — perfect for grades 2-4, see above
2. The Wingdingdilly (by Bill Peet) — my second graders loved drawing their own creature as I read aloud


One of my all time favorite read-alouds for visualization lessons is "The Salamander Room". I will read it the first time without sharing the illustrations and students will draw what they see in their minds as I read. After that, we discuss their illustrations. Then, I read it a second time, showing the pictures so students can compare their drawings to the illustrator's images.

Taryn, I am also interested in knowing the age group you are referring to. Also, have you ever experienced any parental concerns with this text?

I like some older books for reading aloud – and to help children visualize another time and place. For example, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater is absurd and very funny -- and reads aloud well. I also like Ruth Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon – a gentle old-fashioned adventure/fantasy. Have you ever tried a Beverly Cleary aloud? I’m thinking of The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Again, it’s humorous and works on several levels as does Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (though some of the illustrations in Homer Price rather date the book). And for slightly older readers, Kate Dicamillo’s Newbery-winning Tale of Despereaux really brings light and dark (good and evil) into focus through language. Lots of good stuff!

Great suggestions, Taryn. With what age student do you work? I listened to Life of Pi as an audiobook and agree that the description of Zoo Town was amazing!

I love using The Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum for sensory images as well as an excerpt from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I love the scene where he's describing Zoo Town. We talk about how it's the nouns and verbs that help us get the picture more than just adjectives.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers