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Exploring families in literature makes a strong theme with very personal implications. In the younger grades, it's often connected to the social studies curriculum. We're going to expand it into upper grades as well, however, because it brings into focus some very good books for more mature readers. It's important, of course, that once you start such an activity you make sure that every child can find him or herself or a situation very like theirs somewhere in the literature. You want to show a diversity of family structures, dwellings and neighborhoods. Otherwise you do some a disservice and the theme, rather than being an inclusive study, will make some children feel rejected or excluded. The diverse nature of the families will also help to expand some children's notion of family so that they don't think theirs is the only possible way.
A further word of caution: be careful of family trees. While constructing them does make for a good exploration of the subject for kids who are living with or have connections to blood relatives, it's a very different thing indeed for some adopted children, for those in foster care or for many others whose sensitivity on the subject may be less apparent. Modern family trees can include nonblood relatives and be a map of all kinds of important people in children's lives. In fact, this whole theme should be explored with utmost sensitivity for we travel on hazardous ground.
You may want to start by having students discuss, with an aim toward defining, family. Just what it is that makes a family? Are there necessary basic componants? Do you need parents and children for family? Is a home a requirement? Can you be a homeless family? Is blood relation necessary? Do you have to live together to be a family? Do you need to live together all the time? Has the concept of family changed over the years? Is the concept of family different in different cultures? Since the answers to those questions are more or less self evident, you can start listing various family components encountered by students in real life or in books.
For a picture book read aloud for all ages, I'd start with Byrd Baylor's The Table Where Rich People Sit (Simon & Schuster, 1994 ISBN 0-684-19653-0). As our narrator tries to figure out just how much wealth her rather unconventional family has, we get a fine sense of values for these people and of a slightly divergent lifestyle even though the father, mother, daughter, son components are ultra conventional. The book is funny and students may want to start listing things their family values, separating them by family members.
A sidestep from this book would be to further explore family finances by investigating want ads in the local newspaper. Find an advertized job that a theoretical family member could take. Find or estimate the salary or hourly wage and then look through the housing ads for apartments or houses that person could afford on that salary, find furniture, a car and even a pet. The aim of this math activity is to get a realistic look at what a family in your area needs to survive or thrive financially.
It's time to get out more books. Just to confuse the issue, you might like to put out books with such titles as Family of Man, a beautiful photographic essay based on a traveling exhibit of the fifties, which explored family and family structure in many cultures. Also Randall Jarrell's hypnotic and poetic Animal Family (HarperCollins, 1996 ISBN 0-06-205088-5) will push the envelope a bit. Add some books with titles like The Lion Family, The Penguin Family and the like.
Then start digging into the literature. There's no shortage of picture books on the family but let's highlight a few that show different aspects of it. Yonder (Dial, 1988 ISBN 0-8037-0277-9) by Tony Johnston gives a look at the traditions of family handed down by each generation as they plant a tree to commemorate each birth and death in this lyrical book. Barbara Cooney's Island Boy (Viking, 1988 ISBN 0-670-81749-X) also deals with one family's history on an island off the coast of Maine.
Cynthia Rylant's The Relatives Came (Simon & Schuster, 1985 ISBN 0-02 777220-9) is an extended family's celebration of each other as they over-populate a house and enjoy each others company for days. Bigmama's by Donald Crews (Greenwillow, 1991 ISBN 0-688-09950-5) also celebrates the extended family. This is an African American family traveling by train to a reunion at their grandmother's country place.
Single parent families can be seen in George Ella Lyon's Mama Is a Miner (Orchard, 1994 ISBN 0-531-06853-6) in which the mother's workday in a mine is compared with her daughter's day on the earth's surface. There's a similar plot in By the Dawn's Early Light (Simon, 1994 ISBN 0-689-31788-3) in which Rachel's mother works the "graveyard shift" at a factory. The girl narrator describes the effect of her mother's job on the rest of the family: herself, Nina and Josh, her little brother. As we watch Mom going to work, we watch the rest of the family at home. We don't know whether it's a single parent or not in Owl Moon (Putnam, 1987 ISBN 0-399-21457-7) by Jane Yolen. We don't even know the sex of the narrator (although the book blurb says it's a she). It is a lovely parent/child experience, however.
We get a divorced family in Charlie Anderson (Simon, 1990 ISBN 0-689-50486-1) by Barbara Abercrombe, in which two sisters adopt a cat who shows up nightly on their mother's doorstep just at suppertime. On weekends, the girls stay with their father in the city. Eventually they find out that the cat, like them, has two homes and two families who love it.
It's a single parent and grandparent family in Boundless Grace (Dial, 1995 ISBN 0-8037-1715-6) and in its prequel Amazing Grace (Dial, 1991 ISBN 0-8037-1040-2). Here she longs to be part of a real family with the prerequisite father, mother, siblings and dog. Her mother and father split up years ago and her father is living in Gambia with his new wife and children. Reassurances by her mother and grandmother that their family is "real" don't work. When she visits her father and his family in Africa, Grace is torn. She feels stretched between the two families. She tries to cast her step-mother into a fairy-tale role, but knows she doesn't belong there. She ends up with a "happily ever after in two places" ending.
The inclusion of a new family member, a step-father, is in Getting Used to Harry (Orchard, 1996 ISBN 0-531-08794-8). Here we start with the wedding. The mother, Inky, marries Harry the shoe store man and everybody has a good time. Then Harry and Inky go off on their honeymoon and Cynthia stays with Grandma and as she says, "love is the pits." When they come back, Harry is there all the time, Inky's affections are pulled in two directions and Cynthia hates it. "Getting Used to Harry" takes time.
The wedding gets the focus in Mountain Wedding (Morrow, 1996 ISBN 0-688-11348-6) but when two large families try to meld, there's chaos. Two large mountain families are about to be united when the Searcy's widowed mother marries the widower Mr. Long. The bride and groom are happy but the children are at war from the moment they see each other. Fighting breaks out before the preacher utters the first phrase and that's just the beginning of the tumult. This is slapstick and good humor as two families collide.
Stick with the humor for a bit and take a look at Amelia Bedelia's Family Album by Peggy Parish, illustrated by Lynn Sweat (Greenwillow, 1988 ISBN 0-688-07677-7. More about this book). Amelia Bedelia's been around a long time. Her family wants to throw her a party with all of her relatives invited to celebrate. So Amelia gets out her family album. This book is as full of word play as all the other Amelia books but, with the theme of occupations for her relatives, the jokes seem even stronger than usual. As on many family trees, there are a few lemons on Amelia Bedelia's. One of her relatives takes pictures, she says. "'What kind of pictures does he take?' asked Mr. Rogers. 'Any kind,' said Amelia Bedelia. 'You really have to watch him. He will take every picture in the house.'" Her Cousin Chester is a printer. They never could teach him how to write. And so it goes. After you all stop giggling, you can create your own family album. Any fire men? Steeple chasers? Longshore men? Lumberjacks? Keep going.
Now that we're talking occupations, some books show families working together. There's Shirley Anne Williams' Working Cotton (Harcourt, 1992 ISBN 0-15-299624-9) in which an entire family works at picking cotton, Apple Picking Time (Crown, 1994 ISBN 0-517-58971-0) where the crop is different but the family unit is just as close. It's time to move into the novels. Betsy Byars' novel The Pinballs (HarperCollins, 1977 ISBN 0-06-020917-8) deserves its place as one of the best liked books for fifth and sixth graders. The dysfunctional homes those kids came from may start kids finding other literary families in need of or beyond repair. Lois Lowry's Anastasia series portrays just the opposite. Anastasia's mother and father do understand her and her brother Sam and they function rather well, at least most of the time.
There's a nice exploration of a father/son relationship in Robert Kimmel Smith's Bobby Baseball (Delacorte, 1989 ISBN 0-385-29807-2) which is a lot weightier than the title implies. The father is a Little League baseball coach and his son insists on being that team's pitcher in spite of the difficulties that presents for both of them.
In Marion Dane Bauer's A Question of Trust (Scholastic, 1994 ISBN 0-590-47915-6), the mother has moved out and the kids are furious. Their father withdraws from them when they need him most and their mother appears not to care.
Melanin Sun in From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (Scholastic, 1995 ISBN 0-590-45880-9) is faced with quite a challenge. His mother, after years of being single, is now in love with a woman. Melanin's own concept of himself is challenged as he comes to grips with his mother's sexuality.
Jean Thesman's The Rain Catchers (Houghton, 1991 ISBN 0-395-55333-4) gives us Gray who is surrounded by women in her grandmother's house where the clocks have no hands. There's her great aunt Minette, Minette's daughter, her grandmother's female cousin and a family friend, Dr. Belle Russell. Together these women share stories of their past and drink tea and wait for the rain to fall. This house is an oasis of sanity and solidity from which this extended family gains strength.
John Baron, in Gary Paulsen's Haymeadow (Dell, 1994 ISBN 0-440-40923-3) is sent by his stern, uncommunicative father to spend the summer alone in the haymeadow with six thousand sheep, two horses and four dogs. In that place devoid of family, he comes to know himself, his father and his grandfather.
Avi's brief novel, The Barn (Orchard, 1994 ISBN 0-531-06861-7) is about fathers and sons and obsessions. Called back to his home in Oregon in 1855, Ben finds his father felled by a stroke and unable to communicate. Ben is convinced that building a barn that his father wanted will restore him to health and building the barn becomes the all-encompassing quest taken willingly by Ben, less so by his older brother and sister.
As the kids read these novels together or in groups, design times for them to come together and share what their reading is doing to their or the characters' concept of family. They might be able to do a character study similar to those in the fiction but about a real family member.
Find and post some familiar quotes, songs, or proverbs about the family such as "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world", "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn't know what to do", "Father, dear Father, come home with me now" and "Oh, my papa, to me he was so wonderful". Look through old songbooks together for other historical images of family. Further that search on the internet. Encourage students to investigate such websites as
on which are shown issues of Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine for women of the 1840s.
is the site for a women's magazine of the 1870s.
These and other sources could lead to discussions on parenting. What makes a good parent? Read aloud some selections from the novels in which there is a parent/child interaction and analyze it. What did the adult here do or say that was helpful, unhelpful, hurtful, sympathetic and caring?
Take some of the original discussion questions on family and construct questionaires for other family members or neighbors of varying ages to respond. Tabulate the results and see if there are any logical conclusions to draw from the study.
Help! It's time to look at family resources and social agencies available to help families in trouble. Invite social workers, family court personnel and family counselors to come into the classroom and tell what they do and how families can access them and other help when they need it.
This is a study that can take a month or a year and may reach even farther as children encounter in real life some of the situations they may have read about here. Leland Jacobs used to say, "We all walk this world alone. Good literature can help us walk it in a less lonely way."
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. (2010, Amistad/HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060760885. Order Info.) Novel. 218 pages. Gr 4-9.
It's 1968 in Oakland, California and eleven year old Delphine and her two younger sisters are spending a month with their mother who deserted them years ago. It's the height of the Black Power movement and the girls spend their days at the Black Panther's People's Center while their unstable mother writes poetry. This Newbery Honor Book is a fascinating look into the time period as well as an engrossing tale of one girl's struggle to understand her mother and to find her own authentic way of relating to her.
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