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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

The power of story

May 9, 2013

A friend and colleague was telling me recently about a project that her son was working on and the power of a book they shared had on his thinking.

Each of the third grade students was to research one state; Rafe chose Alabama. I'm sure he identified the usual things about it like the state flower (camellia), its capital (thanks to the Rafe's scrutiny, I was reminded of the importance of verifying information. The capital of Alabama is not Birmingham as I originally wrote; it is Montgomery though Birmingham, Rafe tells me, is that state's most populous city) and the state bird (yellowhammer). In finding out about Alabama's history, he found out that it was once segregated.

When my friend shared an atypical history with her admittedly sophisticated 9-year-old, even she was amazed at the result.

In a note to me, Susan wrote, "It's amazing how books can bring things to life for us in a way nothing else can. Rafe certainly understood parts of what he read about Alabama history and the Jim Crow South from the research that he did for his school project, but hearing stories about a boy like himself was eye-opening. He has not been able to stop talking about and thinking about it."

The book is a memoir called Leon's Story (Square Fish) by Leon Walter Tillage. Leon's story is revealed without sensationalizing the horror but by simply relating what happened. It's tough stuff, too, as Tillage was the son of a sharecropper sharing his experiences while growing up in the 1950s and 60s; not a book that a child should read alone, no matter how sophisticated.

Susan is a wise woman who recognizes the power of story, contextualizing and personalizing historical events. She's also wise to take the time to read and talk about a difficult story with her child. It is sure to answer Rafe's questions and raise others, while bringing history and its impact on people to life.

After all, Rafe is beginning to realize that history isn't old and dusty at all. He can have an impact on it because isn't today really tomorrow's history?

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"There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away" — Emily Dickinson