Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Nonfiction Collection

A Treasury of Knowledge

The nonfiction collection in the children’s department of any public library is indeed a treasury of knowledge and a rich source of reading materials for adult literacy students. It will contain books discussing virtually any subject, many written in simple but instructive prose that does not specifically address children as its intended audience. These books are often rich in graphic presentations of information, including photographs, illustrations, maps, charts and graphs, and facsimiles of original documents. They use the true vocabulary of the subject, not a simplified or dumbed-down version, but they also provide clear definitions and pronunciation guides. Works of nonfiction are also found in genres beyond the expected factual texts and biographies. Some books classed as picture books, for example, tell true stories about cultural and historical events and about noteworthy people. Even certain works of poetry are based on actual events, offering the reader an opportunity to examine that event or issue from a different and often deeper perspective. For ABE students who missed much of the content of early schooling because of reading difficulties and for ESOL students who are eager to learn about their new home – its history, geography, and culture, as well as its language – the nonfiction collection of the children’s section offers many opportunities for students to “read to learn” while learning to read and speak the English language.

There are many subjects to choose from to illustrate the point of this entry, but given that it is February, celebrated as “Black History Month,” we’ll look at a range of books depicting the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, and in particular, one pivotal event of that movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, begun in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks on the day she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. The lessons below suggest ways to use a few titles related to this topic. Other books are suggested in the bibliography listed on the left as well as in both Adult Learners Welcome Here and

Choosing and Using Books with Adult New Readers.

A few lesson ideas

Biographies: Rosa Parks is the subject of numerous biographies, written at varying reading levels. On the beginning new reader level, consider, for example, I Am Rosa Parks (Dial Books, 1997), written by Rosa Parks herself with assistance from Jim Haskins, and illustrated by Wil Clay. In this book, Parks recalls important events from her childhood, then tells the story of the fateful day she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, a seemingly simple decision that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a seminal event in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. On one level, the simple text of this book offers students a good example of writing that describes an important event in the writer’s life in simple, declarative sentences. Such personal story telling is an excellent place for literacy students to begin developing writing skills. But given the enormity of the event described, this easy-to-read book offers adult literacy students something more, an opportunity to discuss and perhaps write about more complex issues. By refusing to relinquish her seat, Rosa Parks was striking out against centuries of injustice; she was also breaking a law, inconveniencing herself and others, and subjecting herself to potentially harsh treatment from the angry bus driver and the police who arrested her. Ask your students:

  • Could you imagine yourself in such a situation? What would you do?

  • What if you were another black person on the bus. Would you get up and leave as some did or would you stay?

  • What if you were a white person on the bus. What would you do?

  • Suppose you are one of the policemen. What would you say to Rosa Parks?

  • Is it ever acceptable to break a law?

Picture Books: Although thought of almost exclusively as children’s books, many picture books appeal to “readers of all ages.” An excellent example is poet Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa (Henry Holt, 2005), written in prose at an intermediate new reader level. The picture book format offers a more personal perspective of that fateful day, as Giovanni first introduces us to Rosa in her kitchen preparing breakfast for her husband and worrying about her mother, who has been ill. The reader then follows Rosa through a busy day working as a seamstress for a Montgomery department store. As she boards the bus to go home, we know she is tired and thinking about what to cook for supper when she is confronted with a situation that forces her to make a momentous decision. Dramatically illustrated by Bryan Collier, Giovanni’s story places Rosa in a context that helps readers relate to her as an ordinary person who, by a simple act of defiance, became a catalyst and a symbol of a major social movement.

Encourage students to examine the details of the illustrations of this book. For example:

  • What is in Rosa’s kitchen?
  • What is she wearing?
  • What kind of sewing is she doing?
  • What do the expressions on the faces of the people on bus – or the bus driver and policemen – say to you?
Have students read I Am Rosa Parks first and then read Rosa. Discuss with them how the picture book, with its additional text as well as its illustrations, changed or added to their understanding of Rosa Parks.

Artist Faith Ringgold takes yet another approach in her picture book, If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks (Simon & Schuster, 1999). In this imaginative story, a young girl steps up to what she thinks is her school bus but which turns out to be a kind of magical talking bus that appears once a year to commemorate Rosa Parks’ famous ride, teaching the young girl – and all the books’ readers – about an important event in American history. This picture book is clearly intended for children and is not what I would call a book for readers of all ages. However, it has a potential use in an adult literacy classroom as an example of what could be an interesting writing exercise for intermediate or advanced students. We all know stories - cultural, historical, and personal stories - that we believe should be passed on to children. Ringgold’s approach to passing on the story of Rosa Parks was to invent a magic bus. Consider asking students to think of a story important to them in some way, then ask them to write about it in a way that children would understand. They may choose to write a purely factual account, they may write a poem, or they may invent a story that would appeal to a child’s imagination but also convey important facts, as Ringgold’s book does.

Poetry: In her collection titled On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W.W. Norton, 1999) former Poet Laureate Rita Dove devotes a section of the book to poems about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement. In the simple poem “Rosa,” Dove describes her almost obliquely (“Her sensible coat,” “That courtesy”) yet she says so much about this ordinary person who became a cultural icon. “Rosa” is a beautiful example of how a poem can capture a certain essence of a person by noting a particular detail such as a gesture or an article of clothing. Read this poem aloud to your students and talk about it with them, pointing out the particular details Dove chose to include. Then ask them to think of person they know well and write a poem about that person, using a few specific details that capture something essential about that person. (The book On the Bus with Rosa Parks will be available at most public libraries. “Rosa” is on page 83. Permission to reprint the poem here is being sought.)

Nonfiction: Finally we come to those books more generally thought of when we think of the nonfiction collection. Numerous titles, at various reading levels, are available in public libraries’ nonfiction collections offering biographies of Rosa Parks or discussions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott ; others describe the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement. A few examples include The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Integrating Public Buses (Rosen, 2004), written by Jake Miller. Part of the Rosen Publishing Group’s series “The Library of the Civil Rights Movement,” this book, written at an intermediate new reader level, introduces us to other people important to the movement, including Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at a black college in Montgomery who had conceived of the idea of a bus boycott to protest segregation in public transportation, but had been waiting for the right moment to promote her idea. It examines the effect the year-long boycott had on the black people who refused to ride the bus and on the economy of the city of Montgomery. An even more detailed account, written at an advanced new reader level, is Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Holiday House, 2006). Finally, Diane McWhorter’s A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 (Scholastic, 2004), (also written at the advanced new reader level, discusses the bus boycott as one of several significant events that ended the culture and practice of segregation throughout the south, and the country, during two turbulent decades.

These and other books present many opportunities for integrating the exploration and discussion of interesting content into the curriculum of a literacy program. For example, consider asking students to:

  • Compare facts in various biographies of Rosa Parks with Giovanni’s picture book Rosa.

  • Create a “glossary” of terms related to civil rights issues

  • Look through several books on the bus boycott to find some of the same photographs, then discuss any differences in the captions describing those photographs

  • Discuss the impact of actual photographs versus drawings and illustrations

  • Find information, in books or perhaps through the Internet, on other people mentioned in discussions of the wider movement

  • With help from a local librarian, find examples of poems written about the people, events, and consequences of the Civil Rights Movement. (Two possible titles include Langston Hughes’ collection The Panther and the Lash (Knopf, 1967) and Arnold Adoff’s anthology I Am the Darker Brother (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

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