The newest issue of Book Links magazine (September 2012) is out and my “Reid-Aloud Alert” column features biographies as read-alouds. As a young reader back in the 1960s, biographies were among the first genres I read after graduating from easy readers. Along with the fake biographies written to install someone’s ideas of morals in us (remember those Childhood Biography books? They’re still around), I got caught up in reading mostly sports biographies.
The quality of biographies written for young people today is vastly superior to what it used to be. Even though the encyclopedic-style biographies are still on the market (and popular with young people because they often feature the latest celebrities), there are also many award-winning biographies that showcase strong research and writing. Many of these can be used as read-alouds for children and teens.
The books featured in my article (I’m sorry there’s no online version to read) are Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery, Counting Coups: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond by Joseph Medicine Crow and Herman J. Viola, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: a True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin, Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech, and The Poet Slave of Cuba: a Biography of Juan Francisco Manazano by Margarita Engle.
Here are two excellent biographical read-alouds that had to be dropped from my column because of space constraints. The 10 minute selections are for those times a teacher, librarian, and/or parent doesn’t have enough time to read the entire book but wants to share a portion of the book to entice young readers. These are stand-alone selections that don’t need much or any introduction.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Gr. 5-8): In the early 1960′s, during NASA’s Mercury program to put men into space, thirteen 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 due to 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 quote: “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 sub-heading, “February 4, 1960.” We get a taste of some of the experiments the women experienced. 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.”
Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose (Gr. 6-12): 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 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.”