Column: First Books

States to Imagine

by Kathie Johnson

In my children's library, I offered another geographic reading contest last summer. We focused on the mid-Atlantic states: Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, as well as Washington, D.C. In order to provide enough books for eager readers, I included as well the early frontier states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

My hope is always that the children reading these books will have their worlds expanded, and I heard that happening as we talked about them. My California kids are reading about places very far away from them, and they begin to understand how people live in other parts of the country. My hope for you—if you live in the region we covered—is that you will be directed to aspects of it you may have overlooked. If you live far away, as I do, you may be able to travel with your kids to new places—in your imagination.

These states lend themselves to including many biographies. There are the famous Virginians—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee, as well as Pocahontas of Jamestown; with the frontier states included, there are Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. Many children's biographies have been written on each of these people. One series that has been popular, the Random House Step-Up Books, includes at least four of them (Jackson, Washington, Lee, and Jefferson). These books feature large print and some pictures. Parents enjoy reading them to younger children, and they are just right for good second- and third-grade readers.

For the general geographical area, I was surprised to discover that several books are by a favorite author of mine—Cynthia Rylant. That made me want to know where she grew up. It was in West Virginia, which I had already learned is the only state entirely in the -Appalachian Mountains. Rylant has written a lovely picture book titled When I Was Young in the Mountains, as well as one with more text, titled Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds, which lovingly describes the people and homes of that area. Another picture book with wonderful, colorful illustrations is The Relatives Came, which is about a large family from Virginia coming to see relatives in the hill country. For the older child, A Blue-Eyed Daisy tells of growing up in the hill country as the youngest in the family.

A book on this area by a different author is the picture book My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Arizona grows up going to a one-room school and eventually becomes a teacher there, traveling only in her mind and through her students.

The Mid-Atlantic States

For Maryland, my favorite picture book is Waterman's Child by Barbara Mitchell. One thing I learned in reading about Maryland is that everyone who works harvesting oysters on Chesapeake Bay is a called a waterman, male or female. This book tells of three generations of watermen and shows with wonderful illustrations the changes that took place through those years.

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen tells about a family saying goodbye to the husband/father, who is going off to war. The rest of the family goes to live with the grandparents on Chesapeake Bay. Yolen's deceptively simple story packs a surprisingly big punch.

Flute's Journey by Lynne Cherry is the amazing story of a wood thrush that nests in the woods of Maryland and migrates to Costa Rica and back. For the older reader, Katherine Paterson has written Jacob Have I Loved. The main character is a less-loved twin on a Chesapeake island who gradually learns to find her own value and strength.

For Virginia, there are lots of books set in Jamestown and Williamsburg. An unusual book about Jamestown is the picture book The Lucky Sovereign by Stewart Lees. A boy and his father are sailing to Jamestown to settle. During the trip, the boy makes an enemy of a sailor whom he catches stealing, and trouble ensues.

Another picture book with a bittersweet story is When the Whippoorwill Calls by Candice Ransom. A family that was living in the Blue Ridge Mountains has to move to the flatlands when Shenandoah National Park is developed. Later, a girl and her father from the family go back to visit their old homestead and find a "treasure."

For middle readers, there is another Cynthia Rylant book, The Blue Hill Meadows, with jewel-like illustrations, telling of the life of a country family. And for better readers, there are the "Misty" books by Marguerite Henry, which tell of children and the wonderful horses of Chincoteague Island.

I haven't included Washington, D.C., here, as most of those books are of a different sort, but I have one picture book to recommend for Delaware. Ruth Horowitz's Crab Moon tells of a seven-year-old boy and his mother, who rent a house on the shore and watch as horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs. It has beautiful
illustrations.

The Frontier States

For Tennessee, there are two picture books by Patricia McKissack. Flossie and the Fox is a tale about a girl who meets a fox and needs to protect the eggs she's carrying, so she pretends she doesn't believe he's a fox. Goin' Someplace Special features an African-American girl in the 1950s going into Jim Crow Nashville and running into discrimination, until she arrives at the special place (for you to find out). Another picture book is Chattanooga Sludge, a fascinating science book with colorful illustrations explaining what happens when a river is polluted and what can be done about it.

For West Virginia, there is an unusual picture book by Anna Smucker called No Star Nights. In it, the author gives a loving portrait of growing up in a steel town with smoke a constant presence, but many fun activities. On the last page, the author tells how the steel mill is now gone and the stars are back, but all the young people have left to find jobs. My Dog, Trip by Deborah Kogan Ray also has pictures, but more text. A girl adopts a dog and comes to love it, and is heartbroken when it goes missing. For better readers, there is the Shiloh series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, full of character development and warm family life. There is cruelty to animals, but also redemption and grace.

For Kentucky, George Ella Lyon's colorful picture book Come a Tide is special. The people living in the hills know to watch out when the rain comes pouring down. The family leaves their low-lying home and—offering help to neighbors along the way—drives to Grandma's house on a high hill. Then they "dig out," along with everyone else. Artie Ann Bates has written a beautifully illustrated book called Ragsale, in which a family goes into town to find clothing and other items at what might elsewhere be called a flea market. Hunting the White Cow by Tres Seymour is a humorous story of a cow that disappears and a girl who goes hunting for it. The wonderful pictures by Wendy Halprin tell part of the story. For the better reader, I particularly recommend Rebecca Caudill's series about life in the Kentucky mountains, which includes Happy Little Family.

There are many more books set in this part of America, but these are a few that can get you started on becoming familiar with the landscape and people of these states. 

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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