Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg, 2010. New York: Workman Publishing


On the back cover of this delightful book, it says, “When you think you have made a mistake (and what kid or grown-up hasn’t?), think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful!” That pretty well sums up the message of this little sturdy-paged book that is clearly intended for young readers–but touches the hearts and spirits of everyone. It belongs in classrooms and libraries, on coffee tables, and certainly on the desk of anyone who writes. The minute you see it, you’ll want to reach for it–it’s that irresistible. And from the very first example you’ll get the message: A torn paper? No–a little paint and voile! it’s transformed into a crocodile’s mouth!  A bent corner? Heck, it could become a 3-D penguin! A spill could turn into–well, just about anything. It’s whatever you see in it.  And this is where it gets really interesting. This isn’t just a book about turning mistakes into beautiful opportunities. That would be enough–it’s a golden lesson to be sure. But no–this is a book about art, and about how artists think. An artist looks at a smudge, smear, or stain, and sees possibilities, shapes, emerging stories. And that is an even better lesson. The more you look, the more you see. And what you think is the end of your masterpiece is really just the beginning of something new. The book is physically delightful: small enough to hold, big enough to contain many wonderful examples. The print is artsy and fun. The layout is interactive–there’s always something to peer through or look behind. This is a book you’ll want to give as a gift–to the youngest and oldest writers you know. Maybe to yourself.

In the Classroom

1. Talk about “mistakes.” What sorts of mistakes do writers and artists make? At first, students may think in terms of conventions–spelling and punctuation. To move them on to a larger and more interesting perspective, begin with an example of your own–say, a coffee ring on a note you were composing or a lesson plan you were making. Then make a list of the kinds of little things–rips and smears and smudges–that can seem to spoil our work. How does it feel to make a mistake like this? Can it ruin your day? Does it have to?

2. Share the book, taking your time. Read it more than once. If possible, have students (especially young students) help turn the pages, and peek behind the flaps. But–before you look to see the “solution,” take time to guess on your own what the various mistakes might turn into. On the first page, for example, what does that tear look like? What else could it become?

3. Play with some “on-purpose” mistakes. You’ll need supplies for this–newspaper, wrapping paper, string or yarn, glue, paint, etc. Use your imagination in thinking how you might create holes, rips, shreds, or spills that could be transformed into something else. Hint: Don’t make it too complicated. Students will have fun transforming a simple smudge or spill into something creative, but a paper with ten spills may be so challenging that the playfulness melts away.

4. When you finish, make a display of your various redeemed mistakes. Talk about the artistic creativity needed to see a mistake as a possibility–as the beginning of something new. There’s a word for this: vision. This might be a good time to add vision to a word wall or to writing journals.

5. Talk about the presentation in Saltzberg’s book. Notice how every page is different: Fonts change, images change, colors change. Do readers enjoy this kind of variety? It works beautifully in a book like this–but would this kind of presentation work everywhere? Say . . . in a newspaper? Why? Also talk about the interactive aspect of the book. This author invites readers to engage–to manipulate the book, to do things as they read. Does this make reading more fun? What sorts of readers is Saltzberg writing for? This is generally considered a book for small children. But could it be appropriate for adults, too? Why?

6. Mistakes can be an outstanding theme to write about–from many perspectives. A mistake can turn out to be lucky, for example–as in Barney Saltzberg’s book. Or sometimes we learn something important by making a mistake, or by working to undo or make up for it. Take time to talk about mistakes first, and the many ways there are to think about them. Then, write stories, essays, or poems linked to the theme of “mistakes.” See where this theme takes you in your writing.

7. Would Beautiful Oops! make a good cartoon? Why? If you have access to a video camera, think about transforming some of your class’s “mistake art” into video by filming both the mistakes and the art that evolves from them.

8. Go online to write a review of Beautiful Oops! If the book makes you see mistakes in a new (more positive) way, be sure to include that in your review. Also ask yourself, “What did we notice about this book that others might not have noticed?”

Note: If your library has the book Lunchtime for a Purple Snake by Harriet Zieffert, you may wish to read that also–it’s an excellent text to compare to Saltzberg’s book.