“Our Land is alive, Esperanza…This whole valley breathes and lives…He picked up a handful of earth and studied it. Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe? That you can feel its heart beating.”
― Pam Muñoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising
If a stranger glanced at my book shelves at home, he or she would never know that I currently teach kindergarten. An entire shelf plus a row of the next contain chapter books – Multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, and Christopher Paul Curtis wave to me each day. They are old friends from previous teaching years who have the privilege of being on my shelves at home. Their spines are worn, well loved, by children and by me. Occasionally, one finds its way back into my hands to be read once again. Even better, one is loaned out to a teacher friend to be shared with students once more.
When teaching fourth and fifth grades, I would often stray from the traditional guided reading approach and use literature circles. With practice and support, these groups would become amazing environments for reading and learning. They could function independently while I worked with other students or I could sit in and participate as a reader as well. Being an active participant in the groups meant that at times, I could be reading 3-4 chapter books at once. I found the juggling of multiple characters and story lines to be worth it in the end though.
As a student, I liked learning about history, but in a round about way. I enjoyed documentaries, first person artifacts, journal entries, and – most of all – historical fiction. My love for historical fiction carried over into my teaching. If you have ever paid attention to the span of time upper elementary school teachers and students are expected to cover in one school year, you know it is absurd. Yes – students will hear the material again in future years. Yes – students will go more in depth in future years. But the fact still remains that an expectation to cover 200+ years is there. Exploring history through historical fiction proved to be a savior for me. We could cover content material and students could (hopefully) identify with a character and enjoy themselves along the way.
Some of my favorite historical fiction titles:
Christopher Paul Curtis is, by far, one of my favorite authors of all time. He has an amazing ability to connect readers with issues of long ago in a relatable, non frightening way. In The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, 1963, we are transported into the Watson’s home and travel with them to Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Many teachers I know, use this as a read aloud in order to edit some of the content and language (few curse words). I made a judgement call, and used this for a literature circle group two years ago with fifth graders. I’m so glad I did.
When teaching about World War II, I find it important and beneficial to share as many experiences as possible. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes tells the story of a young girl and the impact radiation from the bombing of Hiroshima has on her life. She uses her knowledge of a Japanese legend to bring hope to herself and her country. Without fail, each year I read this, we made paper cranes. I discovered that origami is not really a strength of mine – but there is always a student who excels and helps others fold the cranes.
Just add Laurie Halse Anderson to the list of authors I am obsessed with. I love how she dives into history and creates strong, dynamic, female characters that are heroines any student can identify with and admire. Yellow Fever does not usually get much attention in elementary history books. However, it is a fascinating piece of our history. I read Fever 1793 out loud to my students. We then connected it with the nonfiction text The American Plague. Through the eyes of Mattie, we learn about the spread of the fever and how no one (not even famous historical figures) could escape. Anderson writes in such a way that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Fever 1793, is part of her historical fiction trilogy. Other titles include Chains (amazing) and Forge (on my to read list).
Following the attack of Pearl Harbor, the lives of Sumiko and her family are thrown into turmoil. Once flower farmers, they are separated and sent to internment camps. Sumiko is sent to a camp in Arizona on Mohave land. Readers are able to gain perspective of two other groups during World War II through Weedflower. Cynthia Kadohata writes with genuine emotion and addresses very complex issues while still leaving room for readers to make connections.
The Great Depression affected all parts of this nation in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In elementary history texts, attention is mainly placed on the stock market crash, Hoovervilles, and the New Deal. In Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan brings us a “riches to rags” story of a Mexican family forced to flee to California after a tragedy. Once part of a wealthy family, Esperanza becomes a migrant worker. Poetically told through the growing seasons, with Spanish intertwined, our heroine’s story takes us through different ethnicities and the organization of labor during the Great Depression.
The spring after 9/11, I chose this book as a read aloud for a class I was student teaching in. I was teaching in a rural area, where closed-mindedness still had a home. Students were making comments about middle eastern people that they didn’t really understand. My hope was to show students another view of a side of the world completely foreign to them. The Breadwinner is one of three books by Deborah Ellis that tells of Parvana, a young girl living in Kabul. After her father’s arrest, Parvana puts her life at risk to take care of her family. Ellis spent several months with refugees researching young girls’ experiences in Afghanistan. Parvana is a hopeful, strong, and determined heroine. Her voice shows that even in oppressive climates, humanity can shine through.
Discussions of the 1930’s always led to students becoming intrigued by Alcatraz, Al Capone, and the original “gangsters” of that time. Gennifer Choldenko created an entire series around Moose Flanagan and his family’s experience on Alcatraz Island. The spirit of the era shines through Al Capone Does My Shirts and acts as an additional character. The characters are well rounded, developed, and relatable. Readers close the pages and immediately want to do research to learn more.
Stay tuned for more über picks – up next, realistic fiction!