When I walked into Chapters last Saturday, I already knew what I was looking for. I had come across an interview in the Toronto Star that morning that reminded me about a new release: The Darkest Dark, by Chris Hadfield, illustrated by the Fan Brothers. There was no missing the display 5 shelves high, 3 across as I pulled one down to take my first peek. Another reader was beside the display also shuffling through the pages, so I asked her, ‘Is it good?’ She nodded. ‘Do you know Chris Hadfield?’ I asked. She looked close to grade 6 in age so it didn’t surprise me that she did. ‘He’s my hero,’ I blurted. ‘Me too,’ she agreed. I don’t know if it’s because of my many years of teaching Grade 6 Space, the way Hadfield made space cool when he tweeted from the ISS, or his musical pursuits and tribute to David Bowie, but Chris Hadfield is one of my heroes. He epitomizes my idea of Canadian identity and proudly wears his nationality while inspiring generations of fans to reach for the stars. And let’s face it, is there anything this man cannot do?
Now, he’s written a children’s picture book.
The story is an autobiographical narrative about Chris as a young boy whose passions determine his future…but for the one flaw that may prevent him from realizing his dreams: he’s afraid of the dark! What are the chances of becoming an astronaut when you’re afraid of the dark?
Ideas to Get You Started
Your students’ grade and interests will determine which ideas you choose, but here are some to get you started. While picture books typically target younger audiences, I have found you can ‘sell’ a picture book to just about any age group.
1. Craft some questions and prompts for before and after reading
- What are you passionate about? Invite students to generate ideas about their passions. How do you nurture or grow your passions?
- Share a fear you have as a teacher, either current or from childhood. How have you faced it or overcome it? What are some fears students have? How do they cope?
- Who is your hero? Who do you look up to? What makes a person heroic?
- What does the dark look like? Sound like? Feel like? Explore the front cover illustration. What mood is already being set by the colour and images?
- “The dark is for dreams – and morning is for making them come true.” Consider posting this quote and having students talk about it over a few days. How does Chris Hadfield’s life resemble that quote? What changed Chris and how did he overcome his fear? How do you know?
2. Explore Big Ideas and Character Traits
Use this book early in the year as part of an exploration of big ideas and character traits in narrative. Like all great tales, it’s not about how the story ends, or learning more about space. It’s about what the reader takes away and stores in their heart long after the book is finished. Sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, this book reveals themes around Hadfield’s earnest pursuit to inspire the next generation of kids to pursue their passions and face their fears…to see fear as an opportunity. How do we learn about, give voice to, and nurture the passions of students in our classroom? Create an anchor chart to track the big ideas your students think that Hadfield is sharing, because as we know, it’s how the reader interacts with the text that determines what students will take away.
An anchor chart of character traits that describe Chris will benefit students by equipping them with richer vocabulary to describe characters in future stories. No doubt they will consider Chris imaginative, creative, passionate, brave, etc. What evidence (in words or actions) do we see in the text that makes you say that? To flesh out the kind of person Chris is, you’ll want to share the extra background information found at the back of the book: a note from Chris, some original photos, and some highlights from his life. How does this additional information add to your understanding of the kind of person Chris is? What evidence did you find that indeed Chris faced his fears and pursued his passions?
3. Connect to the Curriculum
This book would also support a curriculum connection in Grade 6 as you study space. To activate student background knowledge, you might explore what students already know about Chris Hadfield. There are documentary style photos of news articles included in the book that lend credibility but also a sense of setting and time.
- In what ways has space exploration evolved since that first walk on the moon?
- In what ways has space exploration impacted society?
- How does Chris Hadfield play a major role in representing Canada’s contribution to space exploration?
How dramatic must that first walk have been for so much of the world to experience it together! How many of us have gazed at the moon and wondered about someone walking on it?
4. Gather a Text Set
I tend to gather text sets when I consider how I might use a book in class. If I were investigating the lives of inspirational people who faced their fears and challenges, I would recommend Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls; the double picture book Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan/Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan, by Jeanette Winter; Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter. I’m sure you could add many of your favourites to help students make connections between texts.
Perhaps you are exploring STEM related stories to inspire the next generation of innovators. I would recommend The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; Ada Twist Scientist, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts; What Do You Do With an Idea? Or What Do You Do With a Problem? By Kobi Yamada.
5. Explore How the Book was Created
Your students may also benefit from studying the text from a creation standpoint. What about the making of this picture book? Where do story ideas come from? How do illustrators convey the essence of the story? Devote some time to analysing the images across this picture book. What story do the pictures tell that may not be directly in the text? What other books have the Fan brothers illustrated (hint: The Night Gardener!)?
What other books has Chris Hadfield written? Around the World in 92 Minutes, by Chris Hadfield, is an awesome yet playful collection of photographs of Earth as seen from space. Terrific provocations for inquiry!
Here are some links and video clips that could accompany your reading of the picture book:
- Interview with the Toronto Star:
- CBC article with an awesome video clip sharing the genesis of the book and the Fan Brothers thinking:
- Excerpts from the book:
6. Connect with the Author
Fortunately, we live in a connected world where communication with authors is as easy as texting! Consider following Chris Hadfield across all social media platforms…I do!
You’ll find him posting a myriad of curious and engaging photos, articles and ideas. The Darkest Dark just may be the book that launches an inquiry, connects with students and sparks a passion.