In November by Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Jill Kastner. 2000. Voyager Books.
Ages: Aimed at primary–but appealing to everyone, including adults.
In November is a gorgeous book, in every sense of the world. The lush, fuzzy-edged watercolor illustrations will put you in an autumn mood even before you turn the first page. Kastner chooses just the right muted colors and just enough detail to capture the moment without overdoing it, and she respects Rylant’s focus on the sensory richness that marks this special time of year. The book is so short that you can share it aloud within moments, but you find yourself wanting to return again and again, to enjoy it at least once each autumn–and perhaps give it as a gift. Rylant, never one to waste words, seizes on the images that capture the changing of the seasons: the starkness of the trees, animals huddling for warmth, families gathering, birds hunting for meager remaining food, bees going underground. Some are achingly familiar, some strikingly new. The book has a mellow, soft, inviting voice and is wonderful as a read-aloud to teach this trait. But you can do much more with it. Notice the sensory detail, celebrated in both words and illustrations. And don’t miss the unusual word choice, especially noteworthy in Rylant’s sparing use of adjectives: staying birds, earthy holes, sometime friend. Nearly every page has a message, and together they form a central theme: thanksgiving. Not the holiday per se so much (which she references only indirectly), but the lower case version. The feeling in the heart. Though Rylant repeats the phrase In November, the echo never grows tiresome. We find ourselves listening for it, anticipating it. Tune in to the rhythm of the language, and you’ll also notice this writer’s skillful interweaving of long and short sentences punctuated bycarefully crafted fragments. The result is pure poetry–a model of sentence fluency at its finest.
In the Classroom
- Read the book aloud, perhaps more than once, just to enjoy the voice and poetic phrasing.
- Talk about what the month of November (or the fall season) means in your part of the world. Rylant is clearly writing about a region where noticeable, stark seasonal changes occur–marked by shifts in climate. But even if you do not live in such a place, perhaps there are more subtle changes that indicate a shift in seasons–or the coming of a new time of year.
- Write some “In November” pieces of your own, using the repeated phrase “In November” (or any phrase that fits your theme) to open each new segment. The results might be descriptive essays, poems, or journals celebrating family traditions, seasonal changes, or personal changes in the writer’s own life–e.g., what does it mean to turn age 7, 8, 9, 10, or . . . ?
- Leaf through the book slowly, noticing the illustrations artist Jill Kastner uses to reflect each moment. Do your students have favorites? What senses does this artist appeal to through her various paintings? What do you smell, hear, feel?
- Create images of your own to celebrate a month or season of the year. You might consider creating individual greeting cards or assembling a collection of images to make a calendar.
- Author Cynthia Rylant uses some rather unusual adjectives in this book. Which ones stand out for your students? Is the use of common words in unusual ways a mark of good word choice? How so?
- What is the overall impression created by this book? How is it meant to make us feel as readers? Does Cynthia Rylant like the month of November–or autumn in general? How much? How can you tell? Clearly it’s a time of hardship for wild creatures. Is this at odds with her overall theme–or just part of the larger picture?
- Writers get ideas in lots of ways. Talk about how author Cynthia Rylant probably got ideas for this book. Do you picture a moment where Rylant might have said to herself, “Yes! I’ll write about that.” Do you visualize her drawing most of her ideas from observations–just things she noticed? Memories? Imagination? Or some combination of those? Talk about where you get your own ideas for writing, and ask your students to share their thoughts on this, with each other in small groups and/or with the class as a whole.
- Not all books have illustrations. Perhaps they are more important to some books than to others. In this book, do the illustrations carry as much meaning as the words? More? How important are they? Think about the “voice” of artist Jill Kastner. She might have used, say, black and white sketches, cartoons, or even photographs. Did she make a good choice with her artistic voice and style? How so?
- One illustration in this book is distinctly different from all the rest. Which one is it? Why is it different, and why is its place in the book so important?