"Think of a librarian who is a master storyteller performing a well-rehearsed reading to a room full of children or a doting uncle reading a childhood favorite to a cherished niece," writes children's literature expert Joe Sutliff Sanders. "These speaking readers have interpretations … of the words that become evident as the words are spoken."
This process of chaperoning words is vital for the literacy development of young readers — and there are many opportunities to read with the children in our lives over the holidays.
These four picture books are perfect for reading aloud — and talking about — with family and friends. Children from diverse backgrounds need to see themselves mirrored in the text, and these books are particularly well suited for sparking rich discussions, allowing adults to open dialogues with kids about our world.
"One Today" (Little, Brown: 40 pp., $18, ages 3-6) is an evocative visual rendering of the poem Richard Blanco composed for President Obama's second inauguration. Dav Pilkey, in a big change from his bestselling "Captain Underpants" series, ably illustrates with soft, rich tones. His images capture the contemplative yet patriotic mood of Blanco's verse, which highlights the tensions and the promise of the present moment. A double-page spread that reads, "All of us as vital as the one light we move through… the 'I have a dream' we keep dreaming," is infused with rosy light, and then a page turn reveals indigo shadows in honor of the children of Sandy Hook "... or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever." The fullness of our multicultural society on display in this remarkable read can lead to talk about how the United States exemplifies the words on our national seal: e pluribus unum — out of many, one.
A young woman's quest for literacy among the Shona people is the focus of Tererai Trent's autobiographical "The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can" (Viking: 40 pp, $17.99, ages 6-8). Born in rural Zimbabwe during the colonial period, young Trent is not allowed formal education. It is said to be hatigone — impossible. Her brother teaches her to read "the Shona way, through song," and it's not until she is a young mother that her dreams of going to school finally come true. Jan Spivey Gilchrist's watercolor illustrations are particularly masterful here, contrasting the stillness of pastoral village life with the bustling marketplace, and showing the passage of time through a double spread of moon imagery rendered in soft purples and blues. Like Malala Yousafzai's story, this picture book can lead to conversations about education around the world and the connections between literacy and freedom.
From El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press comes the story of tiny Lily, who loves her flip-flops so much that her family has nicknamed her "Little Chanclas" by José Lozano (Cinco Puntos: 32 pp, $16.95, ages 5 -9). From Chata's Market to Benny's Burgerteria and on to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Lily flip-flops her chanclas here, there and everywhere. However, when she breaks their fragile straps while dancing at a particularly fun party, a dilemma ensues — without her beloved shoes, is she still Little Chanclas? Jose Lozano's folk art breathes life into this delightfully humorous tale, told in both Spanish and English. Any child with a particularly beloved toy or item of clothing will be able to relate to Lily, and this story has the potential to lead to discussions about ownership, language, culture and life.
Written by a tribally enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of the Dakotas, S.D. Nelson's "Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People" (Abrams: 20 pp, $19.95, ages 8-12) is a faithful retelling of the life of one of the greatest Native American leaders of the 19th century. Told in the first-person voice of the warrior, chief and holy man, the narrative is decorated with period maps, photographs and authentic ledger book art using the same techniques that Plains Indians used on clothing, tepees, their animals and their own bodies. Even the death of Sitting Bull is depicted through this ledger art, and an afterword assures the reader that the Lakota people have survived despite all odds. Though this book is best suited for students who are reading independently, Nelson's apt observation that "with hope in our hearts, we move forward into action… like the people of all nations, it is up to us to define ourselves in the twenty-first century" is an opportunity to discuss the promise of the future.
Thomas is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and is co-editor of "Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era."