Helping Children Read the World: Stories From History

Books are safe spaces for exploring terrifying places. How would I know what it felt like to shelter from the Gestapo if it weren’t for Anne Frank’s diary? How could I begin to have any idea about enslavement if it weren’t for Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies and other slave narratives? Books transport us to other times in ways that no other vehicle quite can. As we read, we live lives other than our own.

In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Maryanne Wolf explains that as we read, “For a moment in time we leave ourselves; and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally.” The deep reading process, she advocates, fosters empathy. 

At a time when, according to Education Week market research reports, 90% of school district leaders are looking for social-emotional learning “products,” I say look no farther than your local bookstore.

Picture books, like Thirty Minutes over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Melissa Iwai (Orbis Pictus Honor Book for Outstanding Nonfiction 2019), invite young readers to learn about reconciliation. In this true story about the only bomb to be dropped on the continental U.S., the Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita returns after 20 years to apologize to the townspeople of Brookings, Oregon.

Books situate social-emotional issues within real-world settings, both past and present. They invite classroom conversations about controversial issues and allow room for children to ask themselves, “I wonder what I would have done? I wonder what I might have felt?”

For example, Russell Freedman’s We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler tells the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl who risked imprisonment and execution by distributing leaflets urging Germans to defy the Nazi government. Kip Wilson retells this same story as a novel in verse—titled White Rose—told from Sophie’s point of view. We feel her doubts, her determination, her fears, her commitment. Such books can inspire students to stand up for their beliefs and help them see that young people have the power to effect change in the world.

Isn’t this kind of empowerment exactly what social-emotional learning programs attempt to promote?

The poet Kwame Alexander and artist Kadir Nelson collaborated to capture the sweep of the African American experience in a gorgeous new picture book called The Undefeated. Every image and every line of poetry makes reference to a body of knowledge—from the Middle Passage to African American soldiers in the Civil War, from the Harlem Renaissance to LeBron and Serena. Every page in The Undefeated invites further research and reading. I can’t imagine a more powerful way to teach history.

To me, the proposition is simple. Children who read more know more. And those who know more are able to do more. Let’s put more outstanding history books in students’ hands and then stand back while they make this world a better place.

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Carol Jago has been a teacher for 32 years and is an author on HMH’s Into Reading and Into Literature programs. She is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Learn more in her Leadership Talk, “When Children Read the World: Books That Lead the Way,” on August 13, 2019, at 7 PM ET. Register here.

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