Writing with Emotion: A Review of Ida, Always

Leave a comment below (see giveaway information at the end of the post) for a chance to win a copy of this picture book.

Death is a part of life.  As the mom of a five-year-old, I know how hard it is to talk about death with my child. It’s only in the past month that I’ve even broached the subject because I needed to (i.e., My daughter, Isabelle, wanted to meet a singer who is deceased. I had to explain to her that wouldn’t be possible since that singer got sick and went to heaven a few days after Isabelle was born.) in order to be truthful with my child. As an educator, I appreciate books that deal with death in a way that is sensitive enough for young children. Until I attended NJSCBWI earlier this month, I only knew of three books I could use with young children that dealt with death: Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley, and I’m Right Here by Constance Orbeck-Nilssen.

I met author Caron Levis after her NJSCBWI Session, “Sweet Emotion: Creating Moments of Emotional Resonance for Middle Grade and Picture Book Readers” earlier this month. The topic of her presentation, which also included Caron’s agent, Emily Mitchell, was how and why to infuse emotion into writing in meaningful ways.

During the talk, Caron suggested it’s an author’s and an illustrator’s job to allow the reader to feel in the blanks when reading a picture book. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant about this until I read her most recent picture book, Ida, Always, at the end of the session. After reading it I realized Caron had a frank, honest, and age-appropriate way of talking about loss, specifically death, with young readers. There are many places in her book (e.g., white space, at page-turns) where the reader is free to linger, interpret, and question what’s happening emotionally in this touching story.

Before I take you into the ways I can imagine using Ida, Always with young writers, here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

A beautiful, honest portrait of loss and deep friendship told through the story of two iconic polar bears.

Gus lives in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city, and he spends his days with Ida. Ida is right there. Always.

Then one sad day, Gus learns that Ida is very sick, and she isn’t going to get better. The friends help each other face the difficult news with whispers, sniffles, cuddles, and even laughs. Slowly Gus realizes that even after Ida is gone, she will still be with him—through the sounds of their city, and the memories that live in their favorite spots.

Now that you know more about Ida, Always, here are some ideas for using it as a mentor text in writing workshop. (NOTE: All of the craft-related definitions (below) were taken from the glossary of my book, Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts.):

  • Cadence: A way writers stress or emphasize points in their writing. The rhythm of writing pushes readers forward, which keeps them engaged.
    • Caron’s writing rolls easily off of the tongue; it’s pleasing to the ear. The rhythmic quality of her writing makes this text easy to hold up to students whose writing might sound choppy or disjointed. Study Ida, Always with kids who need help with the cadence of their own writing. One way you can do this is to invite students to engage in copy change, which is when students can mimic the same pattern or sentence structure as Caron uses while changing the rest of the words it fits their writing.
      • Teach your students to thank the author, in this case, Caron Levis, in an acknowledgment section at the end of their publishing writing for the copy change.)
  • Repetition: A recurring word, phrase, or line that has a desired effect.
    • The word always is repeated several times across this text. It also appears in the title. In addition, the phrase “keys clicked and shoes clacked” is repeated several times in the text, though the final time it is used it changes to “keys click and shoes clack,” which signals the present time. Use the example of one or both of these recurring words or phrases when you study Ida, Always with your students. Then invite them to look for a phrase they like that they can repeat several times for emphasis. (It could be across in the same paragraph or across their text.)
  • Click here to enlarge.

    Click here to enlarge. IDA, ALWAYS. Text copyright © 2016 by Caron Levis. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Charles Santoso. Illustrations used by permission of the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.

    Setting Details: Writing that provides readers with a sense of place through vivid descriptions of settings, including the period, weather, location, or time of day.

    • This page (right) is one of the many places in the Ida, Always that creates a strong sense of place. Invite young writers to include a balance of setting details throughout their writing. Encourage them to use precise language to describe the setting to paint an image in the reader’s mind.
  • Setting Lead: A vivid description of where or when the story takes place in the first line, lines, or pages of a book so as to hook readers and make them want to read on.
    • The first page spread of the story helps us understand where Gus lives (“in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city”). Readers understand the park is surrounded by buildings and that zookeepers and visitors came and went from the park where Gus lives. While the first page spread doesn’t scream New York City, it provides a vivid description of how the Central Park Zoo fits into Manhattan’s landscape. This setting lead gives readers a sense of place — even though it doesn’t explicitly name where the story takes place — which invites readers in and makes them want to read on. Invite students to weave a variety of setting details into their lead to provide their audience with a strong sense of place.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Instead of stating what’s happening, an author uses action, internal thinking, dialogue, and figurative language to help readers envision what’s happening in the text.
    • Click on the image to enlarge. IDA, ALWAYS. Text copyright © 2016 by Caron Levis. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Charles Santoso. Illustrations used by permission of the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.

      Click on the image to enlarge.
      IDA, ALWAYS. Text copyright © 2016 by Caron Levis. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Charles Santoso. Illustrations used by permission of the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.

      At right, you’ll see one of the many places in the text where Caron shows, rather than tells, how the Gus was feeling. (Even though real bears don’t talk, I believe adding the dialogue highlights the emotional pain Gus felt and makes this scene more real.) After studying at least two places in the text where Caron showed, rather than told, what was happening, invite students to find a place in their writing where they told readers what was happening; encourage them to revise by showing what was happening. Have students use actions, thoughts, dialogue, or feelings to help their readers understand the characters in their writing.

In an effort to keeping this post becoming as lengthy as one of the lesson sets from Craft Moves, I’ll let you know there are at least three other craft moves (i.e., power of three, varied sentence lengths, and wraparound endings) you can teach young writers when using Ida, Always as a mentor text. And, of course, there are even more possibilities. These are just several of the ones I found.

If you choose to adopt Ida, Always as a mentor text for your writing workshop, I encourage you to download the in-depth activity and discussion guide for Ida, Always. It is filled with activities and suggestions for how to use this book in meaningful ways in the classroom.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Ida, Always.  Many thanks to Atheneum Books for Young Readers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Ida, Always, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, June 24th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 27th.
    • NOTE: Atheneum will only ship to U.S. mailing addresses!
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Atheneum will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – IDA, ALWAYS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment about Ida, Always. Alexis’s commenter number was selected so she’ll win a copy of Caron’s book. She wrote:

Thank you for sharing Ida, Always and the other books on this challenging topic. I always used Freddie, the Leaf with students. And with the regent tragedies of this week, it’s a timely share and read.