Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Picture Books That Tell Family Stories

In previous entries I have discussed the use of certain children's books with adult literacy and ESL students, including alphabet books and books to assist ESL students aspiring to become citizens. This time I'd like to suggest another "genre" from the children's collection that can be both useful and inspiring to literacy students: picture books that tell family stories. Some of these books may be designated "for readers of all ages," but there are many without such a designation that have the potential to delight adult readers and entice them to recall their own family stories to share through discussion and writing exercises.

Some picture books are actually brief memoirs in which the authors recall events that loom large in their memories. Cynthia Rylant's memoir of her childhood in the hills of Appalachia, When I Was Young in the Mountains, is a warm, affectionate, and easy to read story about a child raised by her grandparents in material poverty but emotional wealth. It is also an example of good writing. Rylant introduces each brief vignette with the lyrical title phrase, then gives us the most telling details: her coal miner grandfather coming home from work covered in soot, except for his lips when he kissed her; her cousin's white shirt clinging to his back as he was baptized in the river. A student I once taught, inspired by Rylant's book, wrote a story describing the dolls she and her sister made out of soda bottles. Coke bottles were the best, she wrote, because "you could tell the bottom from the top."

Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach is a childhood memory turned into an extraordinary work of art. Originally, Ringgold "told" her story in fabric, creating a story quilt that now hangs in New York's Guggenheim Museum. She later adapted the story to picture book form, using illustrations from the quilt to depict her childhood summers in Harlem, where it was common practice for families to pass hot summer nights on the roof of their apartment building, laughingly referred to as "tar beach." From that height, young Ringgold could look out at the George Washington Bridge and dream of flying off into a life where she was queen and could right whatever wrongs she encountered. Children identify with the young girl's fantasy; adults will marvel at a book which is an amusing story, a beautiful work of art, and an inspiration to recall the summers and dreams of their own youth.

Some picture books tell the stories of people the authors have known or famous people whose lives they have researched. Consider, for example, Gloria Houston's My Great-Aunt Arizona in which the author recalls the woman named for the western territory her brother was exploring with the U.S. Cavalry. True to her name, she was a lively, curious girl who dreamed of visiting faraway places. She never realized that dream, but in her 57 years of teaching generations of mountain children, she inspired many, including the author, to follow their own dreams. Given such an example, literacy students may be inspired to tell tales of extraordinary individuals they have known.

Still other picture books tell stories that convey a wry humor or a wisdom born of experience that only adult readers can truly appreciate. Consider, for example, Norma Farber's How Does It Feel to Be Old? Only a child could ask so blunt a question, as the granddaughter does in this book, but only the adult readers will recognize the irony and wistfulness behind the grandmother's answers, as she explains, for example, that it's nice to be able to eat what you want and when you want, but then asks her granddaughter when she's coming again for tea. The cycles of life, the memories that we cherish and wish to pass on to a new generation, the acceptance of death, these are the underlying themes in this "children's" book that could spark many discussions and writing exercises in an adult literacy or ESL classroom.

Of course picture books of all kinds are an obvious and valuable addition to any family literacy program involving both adults and children as learners. Many children's books are easy enough to offer even beginning level literacy and ESL students the chance to read to the children in their lives and experience not only the physical warmth and comfort that reading together affords, but also the opportunity to enter together into the unique frame of reference that the words, pictures, and ideas of any book create.

Additional titles are listed in the bibliography "Picture Books That Tell Family Stories," listed on the right. Some of the titles are fairly new, others may be ten or even twenty years old, but all are excellent examples of family stories well told than can inspire adult literacy students to recall and relate family stories of their own as they build their reading and speaking skills. All titles should be available through the public library. I have linked the titles to WorldCat, so clicking on them should lead you to a record showing the libraries in your local area who have the book. Keep in mind that there may be newer, paperback editions for some titles. If particular titles are not available in your immediate area, your local librarians will be able to suggest similar titles. Also, additional titles can be found in the books Adult Learners Welcome Here and Choosing and Using Books with Adult New Readers, both published by Neal-Schuman and also available through the public library.

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