Monday, December 3, 2012

Personalizing history

Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs can be an entry point for engaging younger readers with history.  Personal stories may hold more appeal because it ‘really happened’ to someone. Academic retellings may be too dry.

I often like biographies/memoirs because they give me more insight into a historical event, with the extra drama of a real person having lived through it (Just Behave Pablo Picasso by Jonah Winter or His Name was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden).  Sometimes, I find it’s just the voice of the person that I find interesting, like in Pam Munoz Ryan’s The Dreamer about poet Pablo Neruda.

So, in looking at three picture books that I recently came across I wondered what kids would make of them.

First up is Keep Your Eye On the Kid: the Early Years of Buster Keaton by Catherine  Brighton.  I like old movies and I like what little I've seen of Buster Keaton.  Reading about his childhood and how he got into the movies was interesting.  The picture book format meant that it was fairly cursory and moved along quickly.  I think the strongest part of the book is the illustrations which are done in panels usually two or three per page, giving the narrative added interest. I particularly liked the pages showing Buster sitting through his first movie, how enthralled he became with them and how the on-screen speeding train freaked out most of the audience, but only intrigued Buster even more.  The restrained feel of the illustrations highlights Buster’s straight man persona as well.

But I do wonder what kids would make of this one.   Will kids in early elementary grades be drawn to this story?  I wouldn't think that Buster Keaton would be well known to kids today or that his movies would even be very accessible.  Though I really like this book I think it would have to be ‘hand sold’ or integrated into a unit to make much of an impression.  His movies were made during the depression era, so perhaps this book will find a place there.

 Second, is Surviving the Hindenburg by Larry Verstraete, another picture book that I enjoyed very much and felt that kids would connect to easily (or at least more readily than the above book).  This is a big, dramatic story that captures the imagination in the way that many tragedies do.  The mode of transportation is unusual and speaks to the early days of aviation.  Not all the employees were adults, so reading about how children worked at the time is interesting, too. That the Hindenburg crashed in flames when landing in New York City, but there were so few deaths is incredible and totally attention-worthy.   The cover illustration capturing the moment when the aircraft hit the ground, engulfed in flames, is eye-catching and I think will spark curiosity in kids.  This was told in third person so didn't have the immediacy that a first person narrative would have added to the drama.  This could be added to a science unit about flight, social studies for it’s historical connections and child labour content.

And, the third book that I came across was I Will Come Back For You: a Family in Hiding During World War II by Marisabina Russo.  This is based on a true story of a German-Jewish family that immigrates to Italy to escape persecution. After Italy declares its support to Nazi Germany, the persecution follows them, splitting up the family.  But support from Italian resistors enable the father and then the mother to go into hiding when they are about to be deported to concentration camps. The story is told from the perspective of a child, now a grandmother, who is telling her granddaughter this family history.  A charm bracelet that she never takes off is filled with charms that represent the different aspects of the story – donkeys, a bicycle, barn, boat, piano, spinning wheel and pig.

Again, this book might struggle with finding an audience.  The picture book format and cursory nature of the story might be lacking for older students who will likely know more or want to know more about the Holocaust and World War II.  And, younger children may miss or be confused by elements of the story without more background knowledge.  The story was fictionalized for simplicity, as mentioned in the author’s afterword which gives dates and additional information about this time period.  I liked this book, too and would have it on hand as an additional resource for students in grades 5 and up.

I enjoy reading about the lives of people who live in interesting times or books that add an interesting element to the writing.  But not all kids will necessarily make those connections without some prompting and introduction so the stories become more relatable.  And, there’s nothing wrong with having to introduce a book to get a kid to read it - just as long as there is that opportunity to do so.


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