Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve recently had homework! I took my first ever online class on early literacy and the components necessary for every child to learn to read. This wasn’t the first time I learned these concepts, but as I did my homework I was reminded that many believe reading is a one-sided activity. It shouldn’t be. Whether a baby wants to stop and chew on a certain page or a preschooler wants to talk about the pictures, pausing a story to meet that immediate need is an important and often fun experience! Here are some great read alouds with ideas for how to bring stories to life outside the text.
If you are a dog lover, you will love this book. Only dog lovers would understand giving up their free time and a good portion of their shoes, which somehow turn into chew toys, in return for the unconditional love of a pup. But really, all animal lovers can relate to this story. You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secret of Happiness by Julie Klam is a hilarious memoir about how one woman went from being single at thirty and by herself in her Manhattan apartment to working in a dog rescue, married, and parenting all with the help of Otto, a Boston Terrier rescue. From Otto, Klam learned to share her life with another living being, which led her to a completely different lifestyle.
Kenneth Oppel introduces us to young Victor Frankenstein in his new book, This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. Victor is sixteen years old and very curious about alchemy. He lives with his twin brother Konrad and his cousin Elizabeth. They are victims of typical teen curiosity and idle times. As they explore their extensive chateau in Geneva, they discover the previously unknown Dark Library. Clearly, this is a forbidden area to explore. They discover books about alchemy and ancient remedies. Their foray into the off-limits room is discovered by Victor and Konrad's father. He is incensed and instructs them to never go into the room again and to certainly never explore the writings.
Gabriel King is scared of everything. His many fears include spiders, loose cows, and even his best friend Frita's basement. Frita Wilson is a tough girl and she has every intention of helping Gabriel overcome his fears, especially when one of those is going to the fifth grade. The year is 1976, Frita and Gabriel have just graduated from the fourth grade, and they only have one summer to get rid of all of Gabriel's fears. The Liberation of Gabriel King, by K.L. Going, is about a boy who attempts to be brave with the help of his best friend.
“They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?”
“Who else will go?”
Yossarian is possibly the only sane man in the world. Thousands of people he’s never met keep trying to kill him. No one seems to understand his predicament, and no matter how much he refuses he is still forced to risk his own life over and over again. That would be because Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in a squadron off of Italy during World War II, and the people trying to kill him are German soldiers, although it sometimes seems more like it’s his superiors who want him dead.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is in its own class as a novel. It has its own logic, structure, and rhythm. The plot sounds simple -- a man is afraid of going on combat missions because he might be killed -- but there is so much more to it than that. It’s funny, heart-breaking, silly, and meaningful. It is an elaborate critique of bureaucracy, showing the useless repetitions and absurd contradictions that bureaucracy creates, such as the eponymous Catch-22 that thwarts Yossarian: if a man is insane, then he is unfit for combat duty. However, if he requests to be removed from combat that proves he is in fact sane and has to continue fighting, because a sane man would want to protect his life, while only a crazy one would willingly going into combat.
Richard Wright’s Native Son is an exceptional example of dynamic, participatory literature. Rather than allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the words on the page, Wright undermines the passivity and comfort we often expect when reading. Both the content of the novel and Wright’s literary style provoke and disturb, immersing the reader in a dense psychological terrain that is simultaneously intimate and larger-than-life.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Native Son follows the life of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in squalor with his mother and siblings. Bigger’s mother holds him accountable for the welfare of the family, but his ability to work towards a stable life seems perpetually hindered. He can’t overcome his poverty because he can’t get a job that pays well, and he can’t get a decent job because of his lack of education and limited social mobility. He is also imprisoned by the sense that, as an African-American man, his mere existence has been criminalized: “There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong.”
Although I grew up with the traditional Grimm fairy tales, when my son was young, it was folktales that we read most often. Passed down from the oral tradition, they’re perfect for children either as a read aloud or a story you retell together. In honor of Black History Month here are a few of my favorite from the African-American tradition.
Although a picture book, “The People Could Fly” by Virginia Hamilton, is recommended for older children and teens. The narrator tells us that in Africa, some of the people “would walk up on the air like climbin on a gate,” but when they were captured, they forgot that magic. Sarah, a young woman in the fields, was “standin tall, yet afraid” and had “a babe tied to her back.” That didn’t stop the cruelty of the Overseer or the one who called himself their Master and she turned to fellow slave, Toby, for help. He told her, “go, as you know how to go” and Sarah “lifted one foot on the air; then the other. She flew clumsily at first...then she felt the magic, the African mystery” and was gone. The next day, a young man fell from the heat. Toby came and spoke words to him and he flew away. One after the other, slaves fell and there was Toby helping them soar like birds, towards freedom. Of course, the Overseer came after him, but Toby just laughed and said “we are the ones who fly” and a group of slaves rose and “flew in a flock that was black against the heavenly blue” with old Toby flying behind them towards freedom.
Ever since Jacob’s childhood, Grandpa Portman has thrilled him with tales of a beautiful island that provided a safe haven during World War II. On the island was a home for children, populated by a mix of kids with strange abilities. There were even photos to corroborate these fantastical stories – bizarre pictures of a levitating girl, an invisible boy (so all you see is a floating suit), a boy who is a living beehive to a swarm of bees inside of him, and so on. But as he grew older, Jacob came to see these stories as only foolish fairy tales, and asked Grandpa Portman to stop telling them in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
Now Jacob is sixteen, and a terrible family tragedy has mired him in a miasma of depression and uncontrollable fear. To try and reverse his disintegrating mental state, he decides to look for his grandfather’s mythical island, and travels with his father to a remote island off of the coast of Wales. There he finds the decaying ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – and a lot more that he didn’t anticipate: friendship, danger, love, and the pain of making irrevocable decisions.
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The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: "Off the easternmost coast of India lies the immense archipelago of tiny islands known as the Sundarbans. Life here is precarious, ruled by the unforgiving tides and the constant threat of attacks by Bengal tigers. Into this place of vengeful beauty come two seekers from different worlds, whose lives collide with tragic consequences. The settlers of the remote Sundarbans believe that anyone without a pure heart who ventures into the watery island labyrinth will never return. With the arrival of two outsiders from the modern world, the delicate balance of small community life uneasily shifts. Piya Roy is a marine biologist, of Indian descent but stubbornly American, in search of a rare dolphin. Kanai Dutt is an urbane Delhi businessman, here to retrieve the journal of his uncle, who died mysteriously in a local political uprising. When Piya hires an illiterate but proud local fisherman to guide her through the crocodile-infested backwaters, Kanai becomes her translator. From this moment, the tide begins to turn."
If you enjoyed this novel's rich character development and attention to detail from the historical perspective, here are some other titles you may also enjoy:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Set in Italy during World War II, this is the story of the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But his real problem is not the enemy-it is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from the perilous missions he's assigned, he'll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. (amazon.com)
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self knowledge. (amazon.com)
“When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food. Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone…I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.”
More than anything, 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik wants to be a member of the Young Soviet Pioneers in Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin. Sasha can hardly wait for tomorrow’s Pioneer rally, when all of his dreams will be realized. However, as the big day gets close, things go terribly wrong for Sasha. First, his stalwart father is taken away by the State Security in the middle of the night. As Sasha’s mother had died under mysterious circumstances some time before, this leaves Sasha frighteningly alone. He is no longer welcome in the komunalka that he shares with 48 other citizens, so he is put out into deserted and icy streets in the middle of the night.