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Find more Reid-Aloud Alert
When we think of read-alouds, we often focus on fiction. The right biography can make as compelling a read-aloud as any work of fiction. The writer must be skilled enough to avoid an encyclopedic writing style and to blend the facts with aspects of storytelling so that both the reader and the audience want to turn the page to discover what happens next. These exemplary biographies are well suited for reading aloud and will take several sessions to complete. Each of the annotations below features a “10-Minute Selection” that showcases a particularly captivating episode of the book that can be read in one brief sitting.
Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose (Gr. 7–12): Nine months before Rosa Parks made her famous stand on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, a teenage girl refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman in the same city. Claudette Colvin was arrested, taken to jail, and later found guilty of violating segregation laws, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest. Instead of being remembered as a hero, like Parks, Colvin was at first shunned by several of her classmates and community members and then basically forgotten in history as one of the first to challenge Jim Crow laws in Montgomery.
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 4, “It’s My Constitutional Right!” Claudette boards a city bus with her classmates after school. The bus starts filling up, and Claudette is ordered by the bus driver to give up her seat. “Rebellion was on my mind that day. All during February, we’d been talking about people who had taken stands.” The bus driver pulls over to let two white policemen board the bus. The language that the police use with Claudette is strong, so beware when reading the passage. Claudette is taken to the city jail. Her parents and Pastor Reverend Johnson bail her out. The chapter ends with Johnson telling Claudette, “I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”
Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, by Sy Montgomery (Gr. 4–8): Temple Grandin’s autism is, as she says, part of who she is. She became the leading authority on humane treatment of livestock. This book was featured in an interview with Sy Montgomery in the May 2012 issue of Book Links, and it does indeed work as a read-aloud. We learn what Grandin went through growing up—facing a lot of discrimination not only for her autism but also because of her gender. Montgomery also offers readers a better understanding of living with autism.
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 5, “Trial by Teasing,” which starts off with the offensive taunt “retard.” Young Temple has left the comfort of a small, close-knit elementary school and has entered a larger private school for girls. Although the words directed at her sting, Temple gives as good as she gets. She plays pranks on the other girls, including hiding their school clothes during P.E. so that they have to spend the rest of the school day in their gym clothes. The chapter ends with Temple reacting to the opening insult—by throwing a book at the girl who said it. Temple’s family gets a phone call later that week. “The headmaster of the school had called to say that she had been expelled from school.” If there’s time, read the next chapter, “Hampshire School for Wayward Wizards.” Several students at Temple’s new school are showcased not only “because of their problems but because of their abilities.”
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone (Gr. 5–8): In the early 1960s, during NASA’s Mercury program, to put men into space, 13 female pilots were tested to see if they had “the right stuff” to become astronauts. They passed the extreme testing with flying colors, sometimes surpassing the males. Unfortunately, they were met with resistance solely because of their gender. “It didn’t matter that the women were qualified. . . . ‘Sending a woman to do a man’s job would not project the image of international strength that Kennedy desired.’” When the women fought back, the research was shut down because of negative influences of not only military administrators but also the male astronauts, one influential female pilot who was rejected for the testing, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who made this eye-opening statement: “If we let you or other women into the space program, we’d have to let blacks in. We’d have to let Mexican Americans in, and Chinese Americans. We’d have to let every minority in, and we just can’t do that.”
10-Minute Selection: Read chapter 1, “T Minus Thirty-Eight Years.” It is July 1999, and the women featured in the book are witnesses to the launching of the first female space-shuttle commander. In this selection, we also go back in time and learn that in 1961, women couldn’t rent a car or take out a bank loan without a man’s signature. Move on to chapter 2, starting with the subheading “February 4, 1960.” We get a taste of some of the experiments the women faced. End with the quote, “At five, I’d been given soda pop as a reward. This time I was hoping for something far, far greater.”
Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond, by Joseph Medicine Crow and Herman J. Viola (Gr. 5–8): Joseph Medicine Crow was born in 1913 and grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. This book describes the various schools he attended. He has little success at some of the schools, mostly because of cultural differences with his white teachers and classmates. We follow his path as he becomes the first male Crow Indian to graduate from college.
10-Minute Selection: Read the introduction, “A Warrior Tradition.” “A Crow warrior had to perform four different types of war deeds, four ‘coups,’ in order to become a chief.” These include sneaking into an enemy camp and capturing a horse, touching the first enemy to fall in battle, taking away an enemy’s weapon, and, finally, leading a successful war party. “There were no shortcuts. Each coup involved risking one’s life.” Move on toward the end of the book. Joseph is an adult now; in fact, he is an American soldier fighting in WWII. Read chapter 15, “A Crow Warrior in Germany.” Joseph doesn’t realize it at the time, but when he returns home and tells his war stories to the elders, they point out that he has “completed the four requirements to become a chief.” He has even stolen horses that belong to Hitler’s SS officers. After a battle, the Germans surrender, and Joseph rides a horse until the commanding officer yells, “Chief, you better get off. You make too good a target.”
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, by Steve Sheinkin (Gr. 6–9): Benedict Arnold is a name synonymous with the word traitor, but before he schemed for the British army, Arnold was a Revolutionary War hero. Even the British secretary of state wrote, “I think he has shown himself the most enterprising and dangerous man among the rebels.” George Washington was impressed on several occasions by Arnold, even though Arnold’s strong temperament made him enemies among other American revolutionaries. Sheinkin recounts several exciting episodes of Arnold’s life, including the almost miraculous unraveling of his traitorous plans to turn West Point over to the British.
10-Minute Selection: Read most of the chapter titled “A Risky Proposition: July 1–September 18, 1775,” beginning with the sentence, “Washington was in trouble already.” George Washington grants Arnold’s request to invade Montreal through the Maine wilderness. Continue reading the next chapter, titled, “To the Dead River: September 18–October 17, 1775.” Arnold leads 1,050 men and 3 women up the Kennebec River. A summer drought makes the travel difficult. They are forced to portage 13 miles over boggy conditions to another river. “The heavy boats scraped and rubbed the men’s shoulders, wearing through their shirts, and then their skin, until the white tips of bones poked out.” The chapter ends with the sentence, “Then it started to rain.” Close the book and leave your listeners with the teaser, “Next, the weather turns much, much worse for Arnold and his soldiers.”
Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan, by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech (Gr. 7–12): John, a boy from rural southern Sudan, and Martha, from the city of Juba, both become separated from their families and are forced to flee from armies during the Sudan Civil War of 1983–2005. Alternating chapters capture their first-person narratives as they walk hundreds of mile, first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya before finally moving to America.
10-Minute Selection: Read John’s first entry in “Part Two: War.” He gives a little background on the reasons behind the fighting in Sudan. John’s village is attacked when he is 13 years old. He travels with his older neighbor Abraham, and they encounter soldiers on the road. End this selection with the sentence, “‘We will keep going until we are killed,’ Abraham said.” Move on to Martha’s last entry in “Part Three: Refuge.” Martha and her sister have made it to Pinyudu, an open field that serves as a refugee camp in Ethiopia. They are taken care of by a woman named Yar. Although life is hard, Martha makes friends and goes to church. The chapter ends with the lines, “What the man was shouting into the megaphone was shocking. He kept saying, ‘Tonight, we are going to leave’ over and over. ‘You have to pack up your belongings and get ready to leave.’”
The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, by Margarita Engle (Gr. 7–10): Manzano was born in Cuba in 1797 to a wealthy woman who claimed him as her own son. When she died, he was given to a cruel woman who punished him over and over again for the slightest offenses. Through it all, Manzano developed a love of learning and a talent for poetry. He finally escaped his torturous life by fleeing on horseback. Engle portrays the cruel life of Manzano through a series of poems narrated by the poet himself, his birth parents, his owners, the son of his owner, and an overseer.
10-Minute Selection: Begin reading the Manzano poem that starts with the lines, “Even though I am not free / there are things that I love / in this world, this mansion, palace / this strange home where I live / even though it doesn’t always feel exactly / like living / or home,” which appears on p.38 of the hardcover edition. Continue reading the next series of poems, which takes the reader inside the twisted mind of his cruel owner. Finish with the poem narrated by Don Nicolas (p.61), the owner’s son, who thinks this about his mother: “She is the one / with a mind / that needs light.”
Rob Reid’s newest book is titled What’s Black and White and Reid All Over? Something Hilarious Happened at the Library (2012). Visit Rob at www.rapnrob.com.
The books in this column were chosen not only for their lively writing but also because they require more than one session to share. There are also several excellent picture-book biographies on the market that can be read aloud in one sitting, including these stand-out titles below:
The Adventures of Mark Twain, by Huckleberry Finn, by Robert Burleigh
Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Map, by Sue Macy
Irena’s Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan
Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country), by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter
Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, by Sue Stauffacher
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, by Lesa Cline-Ransome
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, by Jonah Winter
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