Like many children, Matthew is plagued by thoughts of monsters in his room at night. He imagines that they’re playing under his bed, in his toy box and even in his trash can.
But unlike many children, Matthew is the protagonist in “Matthew’s Monsters,” a children’s book written by a Hinesville native and former Midway Middle School teacher.
The book, available online now, is more than an exciting tale for author Stephanie Sisler — it’s an interactive reading-comprehension tool that asks the readers to complete illustrations based on text descriptions.
“Monsters must spark the imagination because there are so many colors, limbs, features and adjectives that can be contributed to monsters,” Sisler said. “Details are very important to young children, and they help with memory as well.”
Sisler, who now teaches at-risk and special-needs students at a private school in Florida, was inspired to create the book when she noticed that many students of all ages experienced difficulties recalling characters and ideas presented in their reading assignments.
“Of course I gave them paragraphs and questions to practice and taught them the main elements of a story,” she said. “However, when we watched a movie, they seemed to remember a lot more.”
Sisler sought input from experts on the matter and learned that people who tend to forget what they read or who have trouble with reading comprehension often have problems creating pictures within their minds, she said.
The next year, she taught students to paint pictures in their minds based on the words in their texts and found that they retained information from the passages at greater rates.
Her success inspired her to seek solutions for elementary-aged children.
The answer? Weaving comprehension questions throughout a story like “Matthew’s Monsters” and asking readers to finish the pictures according to their understanding.
The book’s illustrator, Savannah College of Art and Design graduate student Kyle Grzelak, said he was thrilled with the opportunity to use his artistic talents in a way that promotes learning.
“It was obvious to me that Stephanie had thought things through and that she had spent a lot of time developing this idea,” he said. “In a way, it gave me as an illustrator a chance to almost interact with the readers.
“I don’t foresee two of the books being the same — each book will be its own separate and unique composition,” he added. “The fact that it inspires creativity is kind of a bonus.”
The text asks readers to recall colors and numbers while telling the story of how Matthew overcomes his fear of the monsters under his bed — a topic that seems to fascinate children, Sisler said.
“He closed his eyes and imagined a big, hairy, red monster with three bright yellow eyes that had trouble seeing in his dark room and l-o-n-g, sharp, blue fingernails poking his toys,” on page 14 is one example of the story’s descriptive text.
“I realized that monsters were very interesting to young children when my own two kids became obsessed with everything monster-like and imaginative,” Sisler said. “Kids have outrageous imaginations. I tested it out by reading them stories with monsters in them and many Halloween-natured books, and those were the books that are favorites in our household.”
Classroom coloring activities where the students were asked to draw and create the monsters according to a paragraph further have emphasized the effectiveness of engagement, she said.
“They thought it was an art activity instead of testing their reading comprehension,” she said. “When you give kids something fun to do, they’re not really thinking its learning.”
By providing some freedoms in the description, Sisler also encouraged creativity.
“All the kids had different monsters, but they each had the features I mentioned in the paragraph,” she said.
Sisler credits her three years at Midway Middle with fostering the roots of her expertise.
“There’s nothing in college that can prepare you for being in the classroom until you actually experience the true diversity and development skills of the students,” she said. “The most important academic element that I learned was each student is truly an individual, and every student can learn in a caring and nurturing environment.
“I loved seeing their faces light up with they realized they were getting answers right,” she said.
The book, published by Peppertree Press, sells for $12.95 on www.creativereadingforkids.com.