Exclamation Mark

exclamation mark. 2013. Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. New York: Scholastic. Unpaginated.
Genre: Playful fantasy narrative in which an exclamation mark comes to life
Aimed at primary readers—but with abundant lessons for all ages

If ever there was a charming book, this is it. It focuses on that much maligned Kapow of conventions: the exclamation mark. Overused? Perhaps. Misunderstood and underestimated? Definitely. In keeping with the quirky and irresistible voice for which Rosenthal is famous, the story of the little mark that makes a difference is told in a gentle humor that belies its serious philosophical message: individuality rocks.

The story is a simple one. The little exclamation mark knows from day one that he is different. At first, he longs to fit in, to be part of the group. And oh, how he tries. It’s no use, of course, because like all of us, he’s an individual (even if he doesn’t yet know it). He discovers his true identity quite accidentally, responding to the annoying inquiries of—as you might guess—the question mark. All kids have been pestered by questions they’ve heard a thousand times (Do you like school? What grade are you in? How tall are you now?), and they will love this part of the book—and the exclamation mark’s animated and heated response.

Once the exclamation mark begins to understand who he really is, endless possibilities unfold. He gradually comes to realize his power. He can make things happen, and he does, much to the delight of his friends. The question is, of course, when should he unleash that power? And that, of course, is the question many a writing teacher wishes his/her students would ask, for surely the exclamation mark is the most overused of all conventions. On the other hand, it might also be one of the least appreciated. Perhaps if it appeared less frequently, and at just the right moments, we would have more respect for its impact and diversity.

Tom Lichtenheld’s simple but expressive drawings lend the perfect complement to a tale that is partly a reflection on punctuation but mostly an essay on personal identity and self-confidence. The book may not have a flashy multi-colored layout, but its winsome little punctuation people have an allure all their own. The underlying premise that punctuation marks have personality, awareness, and feelings is irresistibly appealing, and Lichtenheld’s understated art (ingenious as always) shows us in subtle ways just how much pressure the world of conventions can put on one of its most interesting members.

In the Classroom
1. Preparation. As you preview the book, think about how you might like to share it. True, it doesn’t feature the kind of intricate detail that demands close-ups. Nevertheless, there is much artistic nuance in the presentation, so if a document camera is an option, do consider it. Otherwise, you’ll want to gather students around as closely as possible so that they can notice the small but oh-so-important changes of expression on those punctuation “faces.”

2. Background. This book will be of particular interest to students in K-2, many of whom will find they can read all or part of it on their own (They may wish to do this after you share it). Most are likely to be familiar with the basic punctuation marks shared in the story, but because their role and function is critical to understanding, a quick review would not hurt. Ask students to explain in their own words the purpose of the period, question mark, and exclamation mark. Which of these marks do they use in their own writing, and when or why? As readers, do they find punctuation marks helpful? How so? Also ask them to imagine what it would be like if punctuation marks were live characters with personalities. What would each one be like? Which one do they think might be quiet, inquisitive, or loud and expressive?

3. Oral reading. Share the book aloud, taking care not to go too quickly. It’s tempting to speed through it since the amount of text per page is small (with a couple of exceptions), but students need time to notice the facial expressions.

4. Topic. Something happens to the exclamation mark in this story. What? Talk about this with students, and even take time to read the book a second time as they ponder this question. It’s the heart of the story, after all. What is the exclamation mark like at the beginning of the story—and what is he like at the end? This kind of comparison could be challenging for primary students to write about, but you can discuss it orally. Ask students to notice how the exclamation mark’s facial expressions change through the book.

5. Personal connection. Once you’ve read the story and talked about how the little exclamation mark changes, bring the story down to a personal level. This is a good time to share the copy on the inside front panel of the book’s dust jacket (letting students know that this is often a good place to look for additional information about any book). Notice in particular the last lines: “Because we all have an inner exclamation mark. The question is, how to find it . . .” What does the author mean by “inner exclamation mark”? Does the little exclamation mark experience feelings that we, as humans, have, too? For example, do we also try hard to fit in sometimes? And do we feel good when we discover a special talent we didn’t know we had? Have students write about this. (Tip: Self-discovery is a sophisticated topic. Help students out with a little modeling, telling the story of a time you worked to fit in with a group—or a time you discovered something good about yourself.)

6. Word choice. Writers sometimes use words their readers might not know. Is this a good thing? Why? Look again at the words author Amy Krouse Rosenthal uses to describe the exclamation mark’s feelings when he can’t be part of the gang: “He was confused, flummoxed, and deflated.” Are these words new to many of your students? Find out with a show of hands. Who knows one? Two? Or all three? Then talk about learning new words from context—from the way they are used and what surrounds them. What clues do we have about the meanings of these words? For example, how does the exclamation mark feel in general at this point in the story? So—are “confused, flummoxed, and deflated” likely to be good feelings? Also, look carefully at the facial expressions for each one, and have students use those expressions as clues to guess word meanings. You may also want to check an online thesaurus for synonyms and make lists. How many of your students feel ready to use at least one of these words in their own writing? Which word is their favorite?

7. The all-important turning point. The Common Core Standards for Narrative emphasize the importance of a turning point in the action—a moment when something changes, and things seem to take off in a different direction. Being able to identify the turning point in a story increases students’ ability to write compelling narratives that are more than simple lists of events. In this story, the turning point occurs just after the exclamation mark (depressed by his ability to not fit in with the periods) decides to run away. Enter the question mark, who deluges him with a barrage of questions until he verbally explodes: “Stop!” Instead of identifying this moment for them, see if your students can pinpoint it themselves (Tip: Turning through the pages once more is enough—you needn’t read everything again). Then discuss it; how is the exclamation mark different after he lets his feelings out? Once you identify the turning point, have students write a short personal narrative (on any topic) that has a turning point of its own. Remind them that after a turning point in a story, the main character feels or acts differently because of something that happened.

8. Argument writing. Talk about the concept of individuality. What does it mean to stand out from the crowd? Is it important to have your very own identity, to be different from everyone else on the planet? Why? Ask students to write about this, taking a stand: Is it more important to fit in—or to be yourself, even if that means not fitting in at all?

9. Presentation. Things begin unfolding rapidly for the exclamation mark just after his fearsome explosion with the giant “Stop!” Talk about how this word is presented in the book. Why is it so BIG? Now notice what happens when the question mark—far from being intimidated by this loud voice—is intrigued, and prompts the exclamation mark to show his stuff. He starts small—with a “Hi”—but notice the size of the print compared to what we’ve seen so far in the book. Is it bigger? What is the big print showing us? Now look at the words on the next page . . . and the next . . . and the pages after that. What is happening to the print? Students should see an explosion of colors and sizes. Talk about how this reflects the character’s voice. How should we read these words aloud? (Have students try it out.) A few pages later, something even more striking occurs. When the exclamation mark returns to show off for his buddies, the print no longer stays on the lines. See if students notice this, and ask them what they think it means.

10. Something conventionally new. The main characters in this book are the exclamation mark, question mark, and period. But another mark of punctuation has a cameo appearance. It’s the ellipsis. Ask students if they know what an ellipsis is. Can someone find an example from the print in your room? Then leaf through the book slowly and ask students to stop you when you come to an ellipsis. You should find two examples. Read each sentence containing an ellipsis aloud, and see if your students can define its purpose in their own words. Why is this such a handy and creative mark of punctuation? What can it do that no other mark can?

11. Original narrative. Some students may enjoy creating an original narrative with the ellipsis, comma, apostrophe, capital letter, or any other convention as a central character. Have them think about what this character might learn about him- or herself, and what special skill or talent this mark might have. (Suggestion: Consider having students work in pairs on this writing, with one as author and the other as illustrator.)

12. Argument: Using exclamation marks wisely. What if we all began using exclamation marks in place of periods? Would that be too much of a good thing? Why? Talk about this, using a short example that you write yourself in front of students: e.g., I got up early today! I had a great breakfast! I went for a hike! I saw a bear! Talk about what happens when exclamation marks come after every sentence. How does this affect a reader? In this (or your own) example, would it be better to keep just one of the exclamation marks? Which one? Ask students to write an argument taking a position on this: Should we use all the exclamation marks we can to make our writing more exciting—or should we only use them once in a while?

13. Research. How old is the exclamation mark? Do any of your students have a guess? Who might have invented it and why? (Look up exclamation mark online to find interesting theories about its origin and alternate names for this mark of punctuation. You’ll discover that it did not appear on keyboards until the 1970s; before that, a typist had to type a period, back space, then add an apostrophe. The exclamation mark is occasionally used in conjunction with the question mark to indicate astonishment: “You mean to say you are ninety years old?!” This combination mark goes by the name of the interrobang. And, as you may already know, the exclamation mark has alternate uses in different languages around the world.)

14. Real world writing. In days and weeks to come, look for examples of exclamation marks in writing you come across: books, magazines, newspapers, ads, letters, greeting cards. Talk about a few examples and whether you think each author made a good choice in deciding to use an exclamation mark.

15. Like dancing! As the inside back flap of the dust jacket tells us, Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld have been called the “Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of children’s literature.” That’s a perfect description! But . . . your students probably don’t have one clue what it means! (Do you know these people?) Unless you’re lucky enough to have a movie clip from one of their iconic films, you can simply explain that Astaire and Rogers were a famous, much revered dancing couple who made a number of movies together from the mid 1930s through most of the 1940s. Astaire and Rogers made extraordinarily difficult dance steps look simple and graceful. So, knowing that, why might someone compare an author and illustrator with a dance team? How are writing and illustrating like dancing?

16. For more info . . . You can find both author and illustrator online. Check out whoisamy.com
and tomlichtenheld.com Your students may want to read more book by this incredible team, including Duck! Rabbit! and The OK Book.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
It is officially summer, and Jeff is busy putting together a summer reading list that you’ll want to explore. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Don’t forget: We can customize a workshop, classroom demo, or other writing consultation to suit the needs of your classroom, school or district. So, for the BEST professional development blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.