This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
Not too long ago, after I told the story of Loudmouse, written by Richard Wilbur (Harcourt, 1991 ISBN 0 15 249494 4), to a large group of children and adults, a first grader, sitting at the very back of the room, said, "You know, that story's a lot like "The Three Little Pigs". He then proceeded to do a literary comparison between the two stories. He wasn't the least bit put off by the large number of strangers in the room; he was too intent on making his points and he did so very well. That incident and others like it serve to remind me that readers like to compare and discuss what they've read and do so at any and every opportunity. Students of every age like the role of critic and expander of meaning.
With this in mind, it makes sense to create a school-wide opportunity for readers of all ages to read books on a given topic over the summer and come back in the fall ready for a book discussion jamboree? Let's call that school-wide book discussion a Grand Colloquy. We can get into more details about the discussion groups later. Don't limit the participation to students only. Open it up to parents, teachers, staff and innocent by-standers. If you choose the right subject for your population, you can achieve your goal of keeping reading going throughout the summer and get the bonus of some lively book discussions in the fall. This discussion, in turn, can lead to a whole new theme cycle.
You'll need to prime the pump with some booktalks in the library. Invite parents, grandparents and several ages of children for your launch. (You'll probably have to do a series of launches because booktalks work better with a fairly small audience; one big assembly program will not likely work.)
I've outlined some possible topics below and given some book-starter suggestions from youngest readers to adult. Choose the one you think is most likely to spark interest with your population. You may want to distribute the booklists after you've made your own additions, of course, but be sure you make readers aware that the list is not of required reading but of possible starting points. Readers should be encouraged to make their own discoveries of books that relate to the theme however tangentially.
The recent controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian is an indication of the feelings that run strong about the events of this era. You can use that controversy as a departure point if you think your community can take an intellectual approach to the problem. If you think that's just asking for trouble, you can aim it toward the Holocaust or broaden it to both theaters of war. When fall comes around, be sure you invite anyone who was alive during the forties to come to school to share their memories. If you can get them to write about their experiences and bring in photographs, you can add that dimension to the fall discussions.
You won't have any trouble locating books about World War II and many of them are quite wonderful. We'll start with the picture books but be sure you show your older as well as your younger readers these books as readers of any age can get a lot out of them. James Stevenson's Don't You Know There's a War On (Greenwillow, 1992 ISBN 0 688 11383 4) sets the scene of the homefront almost perfectly. It's a funny and poignant scrap book of memories. Young readers might be interested in the picture book Baseball Saved Us (Lee & Low, 1993 ISBN 1 880000 01 6) which shows how Japanese Americans interred at camps during the war used baseball as a diversion and morale booster. Another picture book closely related to this one is Yoshiko Uchida's The Bracelet (Philomel, 1993 ISBN 0 399 22503 X). This focuses on the friendships torn apart as well as the inhumanity of the internment itself. Gloria Houston's But No Candy (Philomel, 1992 ISBN 0 399 22142 5) shows the very mundane and self-centered wants of a little girl living safely in America during the war who starts out resenting that war because it deprived her of the candy usually brought to her by her uncle. The realization that that uncle is fighting a war and in danger dawns slowly as Lee and her family go about collecting scrap metal and dealing with rationing.
For the upper elementary group and up, a possible picture book starting point is Let the Celebrations Begin by Margaret Wild with illustrations by Julie Vivas (Orchard, 1991 ISBN 0 531 08537 6). Told in first person by a survivor of the death camp at Bergen Belsen, this picture book lets us in on the moment of liberation. It leads in to any study of the Holocaust. More about that below.
You'll also want to branch out to what life was like in the United States while the war was going on. The events on Autumn Street by Lois Lowry (Houghton, 1980 ISBN 0 395 27812 0) are occasioned by World War II and it is very much in the background, but the war that's fought is a personal one in this unforgettable novel.
Theodore Taylor's strong narrative non-fictional work Air-Raid Pearl Harbor (Harper, 1971 ISBN 0 690 05373 8) pitches you headfirst in the battle and is accessible to readers as young as fourth grade.
For a more global look, a good non-fiction resource for the upper elementary school readers is America in World War II Series by Edward F. Dolan (Millbrook, 1992).
The homefront was sometimes nearer the war than we thought. For the middle school crowd there's Alex, Who Won His War by Chester Aaron (Walker, 1991 ISBN 0 8027 8098 9). This novel starts off slowly but soon becomes exciting as the fourteen year old hero discovers the body of a Nazi saboteur on the Connecticut coast and a war which has been distant becomes very near indeed.
You can't think of World War II very long without thinking about Anne Frank and middle school readers are usually ready to know this young life cut short by the Holocaust. The Doubleday edition of Anne Frank (ISBN 0 385 04019 9) has an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The war had a more immediate effect on the citizens of Europe and Emma Butterworth, a young dancer in Vienna at the beginning of the war tells us of the city's tragedy in As the Waltz Was Ending (Scholastic, 1991 ISBN 0 590 44440 9). A parallel book to this one is Bad Times, Good Friends by Else-Margret Vogel (Harcourt, 1992 ISBN 0 15 205528 2). This memoir is written for mature readers from high school up and tells of a young German woman, living in Berlin during the war, who was under equal danger from the Nazis whom she hated and tried to undermine and the bombing of the Allies.
The holocaust is the cause of a lost little boy in Russia during World War II. The focus, however, is on the little boy, homeless and unable to locate his parents surviving on his own against all odds in Along the Tracks by Tamar Bergman (Houghton, 1991 ISBN 0 395 55328 8). When you find out the book is based on fact, it becomes even more chilling.
We know the name Farley Mowat from his wonderful animal stories. In And No Birds Sang, (Bantam, 1989 ISBN 0 7704 2237 3), he turns his pen to his personal combat experiences in Italy during the war and the narrative is equally compelling.
The Champion by Maurice Gee (Simon & Schuster, 1993 ISBN 0 671 86561 7) gives a different slant and location to the effects of war. Set in New Zealand it focuses around Rex, a twelve year old boy who thinks he knows what heroes are. When a young wounded pilot is sent to their home to recuperate, Rex is at first thrilled and later appalled as he realizes that Jackson Coop is a lowly, frightened pilot and, furthermore, he's black.
Cynthia Rylant's I Had Seen Castles (Harcourt, 1993 ISBN 0 15 238003 5) is apt to create controversy, especially among veterans of the war as its strong anti-war message is carried out through John Dante's war experiences.
A series of five books that adults and some younger readers can share as non-fictional resource material is by Time-Life. The individual titles in the series: Across the Rhine, The Battle of the Atlantic, The Battle of the Bulge, Home Front: Germany and The Italian Campaign. As always with Time-Life, you get vintage photographs, maps and other graphics as well as good, clear writing.
Another series at a slightly more accessible level is John Devaney's World War II Series, published by Walker. This series is chronological and uses many primary sources.
Adults should be encouraged to read the children's literature as well as some aimed specifically at the adult population. There are many wonderful books about the era and the war itself, most of which are well-known. A few late entries: Behind the Barbed Wire by Chester M. Biggs (McFarland, 1995 ISBN 0 89950 972 X). Biggs was one of the marine guards at the US. embassy in China that were captured by the Japanese early in the war and kept in China. Another recent book is Mary Pat Kelly's Proudly We Served (Naval Institute, 1995 ISBN 1 55750 453 9) tells the story of the men on the Mason, a destroyer escort which had white officers and a predominantly African American crew.
The list of World War II books is endless. Expanding the above theme to include any of America's wars will, of course, include all of the above and could get too big to handle. You may want to make it Wars of the Twentieth Century so that you could include some of the excellent books available about World War I. Some of my favorites:
The picture book by Staton Rabin: Casey Over There (Harcourt, 1994 ISBN 0 15 253186 6) will tear your heart apart as magnificent illustrations by Greg Shed illuminate the story of a little boy whose every childhood pleasure is diminished by his thoughts of his big brother, Casey, who is fighting "Over There".
A very accessible reading book is Hero Over Here by Kathleen Kudlinski (Viking, 1990 ISBN 0 670 83050 X). Part of the "Once Upon America Series", this story is about a war on the homefront occurring simultaneously with the war in Europe as Teddy, a ten year old thrust into an adult role, copes with the influenza epidemic.
Gloria Skurzynski's Goodbye, Billy Radish (Bradbury, 1992 ISBN 0 02 782921 9) takes place during World War I, but its real focus is the steel mining town in Pennsylvania and the lives of two boys and their dreams and destiny.
Don't forget that the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes are set in this era and offer a wonderfully warm look at life in those times. Furthermore, Mrs. Moffat is a single mother of a loving family.
Of course, you can go to the Civil and Revolutionary War periods. A picture book such as George Ella Lyon's Cecil's Story (Orchard, 1991 ISBN 0 531 05912 X), although probably set in the Civil War, is so universal as to apply to all wars and the price paid and the courage shown by the innocents in it.
If you expand the war theme still further, you'll get to War and Peace. This theme will let readers investigate peace as more than the absence of war, conflict resolution, and any and all warfare, past and present and its effect on peace.
Another possible theme is Growing Up. This theme should be an easy one to extend to personal reminiscencess and writings. A good starter picture book is James Stevenson's Higher on the Door (Greenwillow, 1987 ISBN 0 688 06636 4). Although Stevenson's focus is his own childhood, growing up in a small town in the thirties and forties, the memories he shares with us should set off a lot of memories in readers of any age and provide a starting point for readings about various childhoods and rites of passage.
Almost every work of Gary Paulsen involves a moment of truth where the main character changes the direction of his life and takes a giant step toward growing up. Since Paulsen has been so wonderfully prolific, readers of many ages should find a volume of his work that interests them.
As with the war books, you won't have any trouble finding good pieces of literature on this theme to recommend to your readers and talkers. Many adult biographies, especially those written by non-celebrities will fit in well to this theme. Adults may also want to try LaVyrle Spencer's Home Song (Dove, 1994 ISBN 0 7871 0301 2 on cassette) which is a family story in which the events of the past imperil the current members.
Because one usually grows up in the midst of a family of one sort or another, the growing up theme can be expanded to What Makes a Family. That would certainly make for lively discussions. Do you dare to make it Family Values?
Enough of the themes, time to start on the Grand Colloquy. While they're off reading for the summer, you'll want to start thinking about some discussion starters. Remember that many adults are unaccustomed to book discussion and may not know where to start. Pick out a few parents you know to be articulate readers and make sure they participate. They'll also be good for encouraging other parents to get involved. In preparation, read Ralph Peterson's book Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action (Scholastic Canada, 1990) yourself and then hand it on to some discussion leaders.
You may want to appoint a discussion leader for each group as well as a recorder. If you do appoint leaders, make sure they know their role ahead of time so that they can prepare some questions or statements for starting things off.
Begin thinking about how you're going to group people for the discussion. If it's the World War Two theme, you may want to start with homefront and warfront books. If it's Growing Up, will you divide by gender? Be sure you keep the age range as wide as possible.
Consider having both day and evening discussion groups so that as many people as possible can participate. Offer refreshments and comfortable, informal settings for the talk. Get involved yourself, but don't take over. Your biggest problem will probably be getting them to stop. Who knows, it may become a full year's activity. Have fun.
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